By Panchali Saikia
The refugee influx and clashes in May 2011 between the Myanmarese military troops and Karenni soldiers near the Daw Ta Naw village in Shadaw District and with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Kyarinnseikgyieat in Karen State have emerged as a great security challenge for both, Myanmar and Thailand. Earlier, in April, the Thai National Security Council Secretary-General Thawil Pliensri had announced his government’s intention to close down nine border camps and repatriate over 140,000 Myanmarese refugees. But the political instability and the ongoing clashes in Myanmar have added to the refugee influx into Thailand.
This begs the question that after providing asylum to these refugees for over three decades, why is it that the Thai government has now decided to repatriate them in such huge numbers? Is this an effort by the Thai government to improve its relations with the newly formed Myanmar government? If so then what are the prospects for the refugees after their repatriation?
The Thai government like several others was under the impression that once a stable civil government is formed in Yangon, it could easily send back Myanmarese refugees. However, despite a civilian government being formed last year, Myanmar’s military has continued its operations against the ethnic groups. A conflict erupted between the military and ethnic insurgent groups around the border town of Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar just after the general elections in November 2010, forcing more than 20,000 civilians to cross the border into Thailand.
The increased refugee inflow into Thailand and the consequent problems of illegal trade, drugs and human-trafficking, diseases only accentuates Thai security concerns. Latest figures from the non-governmental Thailand-Burma Border Consortium show that there are nearly 1,43,000 refugees living in border camps. The displaced people occupying those nine camps are mainly from Myanmar and a majority belongs to the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups. Another 50,000 asylum seekers live outside the camps that belong to other ethnic minorities and some are even political dissidents or pro-democracy movement supporters.
The state of these refugees will only continue to deteriorate given the political decisions taken by Thailand. Recently, Bangkok decided to reduce food aid to these refugee camps by around 20 per cent. Further, refugee protection in Thailand has suffered from the lack of an adequate legal framework. Bangkok does not have domestic asylum laws and nor is it signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, NGOs and the UNHCR have limited access to these border camps and screenings of deportations of refugees are difficult. Thailand in order to maintain cordial bilateral relations with the new Myanmarese government and enhance its investment opportunities in Yangon, has ignored the plight of these refugees. Thus many refugees are now rendered without access to basic healthcare, education and other services since they are not legally registered.
Thailand’s priority now, is its economic growth which is hampered by commitments to refugee protection. Thailand is worried about losing its investment opportunities in Myanmar to China. In April 2011, China overtook Thailand as Myanmar’s leading investor with cumulative Chinese investment of US$ 9.6 billion whereas Thailand remained slightly behind at about US$ 9.5 billion. Most Thai investment projects are hindered due to the constant conflict along the Thai-Myanmarese border areas. For instance, one of the Thailand’s largest construction firms had to halt its construction of a sea-port in Myanmar’s Dawei River in southeastern Myanmar where it had invested around US$ 8.6 billion as the highway to this seaport was supposed to pass through the conflict-torn Karen state.
For these reasons, despite protests from human rights groups and disapproval from the international community, in 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva repatriated over 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos. This bore a precedent in 1998 when for the first time that Thailand’s erstwhile Defense Minister Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh had forcibly sent back refugees who fled from Myanmar to escape the military persecution by the Myanmarese Junta towards pro-democracy protests. Fear among the refugees of being forcibly pushed back towards the war zone in Myanmar thus remains high.
Meanwhile, Thailand had also tried other possible ways to manage the increasing number of refugees. In 2005, Bangkok started a refugee resettlement programme to third countries in the West. So far, nearly 70,000 refugees that came into Thailand have been resettled in 12 different countries. Still, the refugee population has not reduced and the continuous clashes along the border are forcing more Myanmarese across the border every year.
The involuntary repatriation of the refugees at this stage will have a major impact on the bilateral relations between the two countries. Thailand is the current chair of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council and any such act will not only draw harsh condemnation against the Thai Government, but also undermine its image in the international arena and may jeopardize its relationship with the Western countries. Forced repatriation will only bring short-term solutions and will be detrimental in the long-run. These refugees will return increasing the burden of the host country as has happened frequently in the past, thereby becoming a source of irritation between the two countries. There also exist chances of conflict both among the asylum seekers and between local Thais and the Myanmarese refugees.
Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS
email: [email protected]