Thai Govt Responds to Karen Landmine Fears – The Irrawaddy

BANGKOK—Acting Thai government spokesperson Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn has told The Irrawaddy that the Thai authorities have been assured by their Burmese counterparts that the areas to which 3,000 Karen refugees are to be repatriated are clear of landmines.

Earlier, while addressing a forum on the Thai Internal Security Act at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Dr. Panitan said that the Thai government was assured of the sincerity of the Burmese junta, saying, “We do not look down on our neighbors as others may do. We have no reason to accuse them of anything wrong.”

However, at a press conference held at the National Human Rights Commission in the Thai government complex, Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) spokesperson Blooming Night Zan refuted the claims, saying that there is ample evidence that the area to which the refugees will be repatriated is mined. She pointed to injuries sustained by some of the refugees who crossed the border to tend to livestock left behind, including a pregnant woman who had her foot blown apart.

Earlier on Friday, both the KWO spokesperson and US embassy spokesperson Cynthia A. Brown confirmed to The Irrawaddy that three Karen families had already been repatriated. Ms Brown said that an officer from the US Embassy Refugee and Migration Affairs Office was on the ground at Tha Song Yang on the Thai-Burmese border on Friday morning when the forcible repatriation took place.

Originally, 161 Karen were due to be sent back to Burma on Friday, with all the refugees at Tha Song Yang to be deported by Feb. 15. However, according to Blooming Night Zan, the Thai military did not go through with the planned deportation on Friday due to overnight media reporting.

On Thursday, a group of 27 US legislators, echoing several similar international and domestic calls, appealed to Thailand against sending the refugees back to Burma. “If forced to return, these refugees will suffer horrific human rights abuses,” said the Americans’ letter to Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister.

Outlining the bodies responsible for deciding upon and implementing the repatriation, Dr. Panitan said that “the deadline and process [of repatriation] is subject to the relevant agencies responsible for border control and martial law areas,” and added that the Thai government was happy to proceed based on “preliminary reports” from the military that the refugees were willing to go back to Burma.

Thai officials, however, have denied that anyone would be forced to leave, saying any repatriations would be on a voluntary basis. “There is no forced repatriation as it’s not our policy,” Col Noppadol Watcharajitbaworn, the military commander in the Thai province of Tak where the refugees are sheltering, told The Associated Press.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is “not involved” in this issue, according to Prof Amara Ponsapich, the chairperson of the commission, as “the activity is being managed by the government and military.”

The NHCR chair confirmed in an interview with The Irrawaddy that the body had raised concerns about the proposed repatriation on Monday, and received a verbal response from the government that it would look into the issue. The government told the NHCR that it was satisfied that the area was free of landmines and that there was no prospect of armed conflict between the rebel Karen National Liberation Army and the pro-junta Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

Sending refugees back to country of origin against their will and without guarantees that they will be safe is contrary to the international human rights and refugee principle of non-refoulement. However, Dr. Panitan said “the process will be undertaken in accordance with international human rights standards and in compliance with Thai law, that is the Immigration Law of 1979.”

According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, “the refugees are very nervous about going back to Burma.”

When The Irrawaddy put it to Dr. Panitan that there were inconsistencies between the Thai authorities’ view that the refugees are willing to return, and the reports that they feared going back to a heavily-mined area, he pledged that “we will look into any discrepancy”, but added that “there is no indication as of now that the policy will change.”

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