Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is working on a plan to repatriate Burmese refugees and intellectuals after the Nov. 7 election, saying that the Thai government will assist in their return to “half-democratic” Burma.
He told a US audience that upon his return to Bangkok, he will “launch a more comprehensive program for the Myanmar people in the camps, the displaced, the intellectuals who run around the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai province, to return to Myanmar after the elections.”
The remarks were made at a forum at the Asia Society in New York on September 28, when Kasit discussed the political situation in Thailand, as well as regional issues and US-China relations.
Kasit said he believes the elections will not be up to international standards, but will be “ a start,” and that non-Burmese should “believe the aspirations of the ordinary Burmese who are being given the first step back towards an open democratic society.”
Thein Oo, a Thailand-based member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), says that the Thai foreign minister’s remarks are out of sync with what the international community is saying about the poll. “These elections are for the generals, who have been committing crimes in our country for many years, and will continue to do,” he said.
Thailand has long functioned as a refuge and support base for Burmese opposition leaders, activists and ethnic parties. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees have passed through Thailand, with an estimated 140,000 still in camps along the Thailand’s border with Burma. Some 2 to 3 million Burmese have fled a stagnant economy at home and are migrant workers in Thailand, with many Thai businesses relying on cheap Burmese labor.
Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia representative Benjamin Zawacki told The Irrawaddy that “Thailand has a long history of sharing the refugee burden in Southeast Asia, and while that history has been blemished during the past two years in relation to the Rohingya boat people and the Lao Hmong refugees, Amnesty is confident that Thailand will not allow false hopes to triumph over reality on the protection of Burmese refugees.”
Wong Aung, the coordinator of the Thailand-based Shwe Gas Movement, which raises awareness about the role of Burma’s growing natural resource revenues in sustaining military rule in the country, said he is “concerned about the growing economic ties between Thailand and Burma,.” which he feels may be underwriting Bangkok’s closer alignment with Naypyidaw. Thailand is Burma’s largest trading partner. Oil and gas exploration and production company PTTEP, which is 51 percent owned by the Thai government, announced a deal to buy gas from Burma’s offshore M9 field in late July. Days before the deal was inked, Tawin Pleansiri, the secretary-general of Thailand’s National Security Council, was quoted by the Thai News Service as saying that conditions for Burmese refugees to return home “would probably be after the general elections take place.”
The repatriation plan, if it goes ahead, will be resisted in Thailand and overseas, according to human rights lawyer Somchai Homlaor. He told The Irrawaddy that “any such plan would be against Thai law and international law and would be resisted by the UN and the international community.” Repatriating or deporting refugees to their country of origin, when there are concerns about human rights in that country, contravenes the principal of non-refoulement.
Over 2,100 political prisoners are locked up inside Burma, numbers that doubled after the crushing of the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens, mostly from ethnic minorities, are displaced internally within Burma. Somchai said that the Burmese government after the election “will not be democratic” and that “the situation there will not get better,” meaning that “refugees will face persecution” if they are sent home.
More than 3,000 villages in the east of the country have been destroyed since 1996—a number roughly equivalent to the estimated number of villages destroyed in Darfur—and there is growing international clamor for a Commission of Inquiry to be established to look into possible war crimes in Burma.
“Without resolving all the problems in Burma and a change of government to a full democracy, it will be far too early to send people back there,” concluded Thein Oo.Show