BANGKOK—Burmese exile groups are urging Thailand not to repatriate to Burma several thousand ethnic minority Karen who fled across the border to escape armed clashes between Karen rebels and a rival faction backed by the ruling Burmese junta.
The more than 3,000 ethnic Karen refugees—now staying in Tha Song Yang, Tak province—are mostly women and children, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) said in a statement.
“This group of refugees [has] been told by the Thai Army that they must all be returned to Burma by Feb. 15. The refugees were told that actions to remove them will begin Feb. 5 ... They are now living in fear of imminent forced repatriation into an area which is heavily landmined, and where active conflict can re-ignite at any moment.”
The Burma Campaign UK also urged Bangkok to halt any plans to forcibly return the Karen, who fled in June 2009 following a military offensive by the Burmese army and its allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).
“Although the Royal Thai Government and local and military representatives have officially stated that they will not force people to return, in practice they are applying significant pressure on the refugees to return,” it said.
Karen refugees in the camps say Thai soldiers informed them on Jan. 28 that they would have to return to Burma and that the armed conflict in Karen state had ended.
The Karen were allowed temporary refuge in Mae U Su, Mae Salit, and Nong Bua, in Thailand, but they haven’t been allowed to move to the permanent Mae La refugee camp in Tak province.
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) declined to estimate the total number of Karen refugees in Thailand.
But she said that at a Jan. 26 meeting Thai authorities and UNHCR officials agreed that no refugees would be forced back to Burma, and that those who choose to return will be given aid from a nongovernmental consortium.
“UNHCR's position is and always has been—despite anything that was reported in the Thai media—that all refugee returns to Myanmar [Burma] must be on a strictly voluntary basis."
Thai-Burma Border Consortium executive director Jack Dunford meanwhile said Wednesday that UNHCR officials were interviewing a group of Karen refugees—belonging to 30 families—whom the Thai military had described as willing returnees.
A Thai military official at the Naresuan Task Force in Tak province said by telephone Monday that a planned repatriation had been postponed indefinitely.
Thai soldiers guarding Nong Bua Camp in Tha Song Yang district told reporters that more than 600 Karen were sheltering in the camp, and that most don’t want to return to Burma.
On Jan. 28, the Karen Women’s Organization said, members of the Thai military forcibly repatriated 50 people to their homes in Ler Per Her village, in Burma’s Karen state, to prepare for a larger group to return, they said.
But the group added that the area was unsafe, with five refugees either killed or injured by landmines in recent months.
“This included a 13-year-old boy whose leg was blown off in September last year. And a woman who was eight months pregnant had her foot blown apart on Jan. 18, 2010,” the statement said.
“Although the Thai government is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention, the KWO is very grateful to His Majesty the Thai King, and the Thai government, for a long history of kindness to refugees. We appeal to the Thai authorities now to show your humanitarian kindness again,” KWO joint secretary Blooming Night Zan said.
“Actually the refugees did not want to go home at all but they had been pressured and threatened by some Thai officials almost daily to go back,” Zan said in an interview.
“The refugees dare not go back as there are landmines everywhere and these cannot be seen easily ... Everybody, including the Thais, was told to go in single file with extra caution because of the mines.”
Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.