By Viengsay Luangkhot
The repatriation of more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong people from Thailand to Laos this past Dec. 28-29 has created a current of vehement opposition in the international community, especially among human rights organizations and at the United Nations.
Will the issue of the Hmong in the temporary internment camp in Huay Nam Khao village of Petchabun province and in the border police prison at Nong Khai, which has dragged out for the last five or six years, really be finished now that the Hmong have all been returned to Laos?
Or will the issue grow bigger and get worse because no independent agency has been allowed to meet and talk freely with, or go and visit, those who were repatriated?
The Hmong, who had been living in the camps in northern Thailand in the hope of resettlement in a third country, were sent home under a bilateral agreement between Laos and Thailand that referred to the refugees as "illegal aliens" who must be sent home by the end of 2009.
What caused the strong opposition to the repatriation was the inclusion in the group of a large number of political refugees who faced danger if returned to Laos.
A majority of the 158 people incarcerated in Nong Khai had already been interviewed by the United Nations and recognized as refugees with the right to travel to and establish new lives in third countries.
The Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and the United States had all agreed to accept some of the refugees.
But Thai officials refused to let them travel, with the excuse that the Hmong needed to return to Laos in order to fill out the proper paperwork before leaving.
The Hmong in the Huay Nam Khao camp all claimed to have fled retribution from Lao officials because they or their parents had sided with the United States against the Pathet Lao communists during the Vietnam War. The Pathet Lao have now ruled the country since 1975.
Nobody can say whether the Huay Nam Khao group’s claims were true of all 4,000 of the Hmong living there, because Thai officials refused to allow any organizations to conduct a survey at the camp.
Only Doctors Without Borders was allowed work in the camp, and they have stated that some of the people they treated there had bomb fragments buried in their bodies and were suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Thai-Laos relations key
Even Thai officials acknowledged that around 1,000 of the Hmong in the Huay Nam Khao camp were indeed political refugees, or genuine asylum-seekers.
And the Thai military sent that list of names to the Thai Security Council for further review.
Unfortunately, Thai officials failed to separate them out and decided that all the Hmong had entered the country illegally and that, according to its laws, Thailand had the right to repatriate them.
Why did the Thai government make that decision, knowing it would tarnish their image in the eyes of the international community? After all, Thailand currently holds the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and is engaged in building a reputation as a regional leader.
To understand why Thailand would act according to the desires of Laos, we need to examine the current political situation inside Thailand, domestically as well as internationally.
I recently asked a Thai elder statesman why Thailand had bowed so readily to demands from Laos regarding the Hmong.
He answered briefly, but clearly, that relations between Thailand and its neighbors are poor at the moment.
Laos, with which Thailand can still have a dialogue, is the one exception, he said.
For this reason, he said, Thailand prefers to avoid upsetting Laos, which would isolate Thailand in a region of unfriendly neighbors.
A role with few benefits
One can clearly see that in Thailand's calculations, national security comes before anything else, including democracy or human rights.
And seen this way, the Hmong issue wasn't a problem of Thailand’s making, but instead a burden it had carried for a long time.
As the old Lao saying goes, "We didn’t eat the meat or sit on the leather, but we still have the bones hanging around our necks."
So now the 4,000 Hmong, including the 158 from Nong Khai whom Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had once promised could go to third countries within 30 days, have all been sent back to Laos, where they have been received as well as can be expected by one of the poorest nations on earth.
Repeated requests from representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit the repatriated Hmong have been subjected to delays and stonewalling.
And Lao officials have issued a report saying that hundreds of repatriated Hmong, including the 158 from Hong Khai, have changed their minds and now wished to stay in Laos.
UNHCR representatives say they are happy to hear that the Hmong, who once said they would rather die than return to Laos, have decided on their own to stay, but add they would still like to verify whether these are truly the group’s intentions, and that they haven't been coerced.
The Lao government says it doesn't consider the Hmong political refugees because the war ended 30 years ago.
They say that there is currently no fighting in Laos, and so they believe that the Hmong were tricked into going to Thailand illegally in the hope they would be allowed to go on to third countries, especially the United States where so many of their relatives are waiting to receive them.
These claims by the Lao government have some truth to them, as I discovered in interviews with many Hmong in the camp at Huay Nam Khao.
But these interviewees were brought out by Thai officials for me to talk to when I visited. And the claims may not hold true for the entire group of more than 4,000.
UNHCR is still interested in the group of 158 people from Nong Khai and the estimated 1,000 others whom the Thai government felt had sufficient justification for not returning to Laos because of the dangers involved.
While there is currently no war in Laos, the country still hasn't been peaceful for the last 30 years.
There have been many examples of resistance: bombings during the recent Southeast Asian Games, a string of explosions in Vientiane City in the 1990s, an attack on a border checkpoint at Vang Tao in Champassak province, and an attempted march by students and citizens that led to the deportation of European Parliament members who protested the resulting arrests.
And the Hmong resistance movement is still holding out in the deep forests of Laos, according to video footage shot by foreign journalists.
Unless I am mistaken, one-third to a quarter of the Hmong repatriated by the Thai government are still of interest to UNHCR, who would like to know for sure that they are safe from persecution, and that the Lao government has pardoned them as Lao Brig.-Gen. Bouxiang Champaphan promised them on a visit to the Huay Nam Khao camp.
As long as the Lao government refuses to allow independent reporters and organizations to meet and talk freely with the Hmong repatriated to Laos, questions will remain as to the intentions of the Lao government.
Edited by Luisetta Mudie.