Thailand to Return Myanmar Refugees

16 July, 2014

Thailand's military government says it has reached an agreement with Myanmar, also known as Burma, for the return of refugees. The agreement calls for as many as 130,000 people to be sent back to Myanmar. The refugees fled violence and conflict in that country over many years.

Rights activists oppose the move. They say refugees should not be returned until security and Myanmar's economy have improved.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha leads Thailand. He has said Thailand would work with Myanmar to help the refugees that live in camps along their shared border. The General says human rights laws will be respected in the action.

The refugees are mostly ethnic Karen from Myanmar. Others are members of the Karenni and Shan groups. The groups have fought the Thai government for more self-rule. Most groups have reached agreements with the government to end the conflicts. But not all members feel it is safe for them to return.

Rights groups also say they are worried about the refugees' return. They say some of the land traditionally held by the groups has been seized. Land mines are also a danger in these areas.

Bo Kyi is an activist who has campaigned for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar. Bo Kyi says the border areas are not secure.

"Sending back refugees to Burma is really dangerous for most of the refugees because Burma did not get peace and we don't know then there will be another conflict in Karen state. Burma is not ready for job creation for those returning refugees."

Thailand's former civilian government had talked about returning refugees. But the little progress made only followed strong international criticism.

Debbie Stothard is a spokeswoman for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network. She says the Thai military has shown it wants to solve the refugee problem since it seized power in May.

Thailand to Return Myanmar Refugees
Karen refugees leave after a church service at Mae La refugee camp in Ta Song Yang district of Tak province, northern Thailand, April 12, 2013.

"Now I think there's quite a strong fear that this is going to happen especially because the U.N. and international agencies have been working on this. But the situation is still extremely fragile and dangerous. We're actually seeing more people displaced. And if you happen to be a refugee of Muslim background then you are particularly vulnerable."

Violence began two years ago in ethnic Rohingya areas of Myanmar. Tensions have increased between Buddhists and Muslims since that time.

Ms. Stothard says refugees fear they will be harmed by the Myanmar military. She says the military violates the rights of members of ethnic groups and has not been punished for such actions. She says that is why many people fled in the past.

Blooming Night Zan is a spokesperson for the Karen Refugee Committee. She says the group is worried about the lack of information about plans to return the refugees to Myanmar.

Rights groups are calling on the United Nations refugee agency to closely watch the situation. They say it may be too early to return the refugees to Myanmar because of cuts in aid to that country. They also say there need to be more political reforms in Myanmar.

I'm Mario Ritter

This story was written from a report by Ron Corben in Bangkok