Will Thailand Send 140,000 Refugees Back to Burma?

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Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP / Getty Images

A Thai border policeman stands guard as Burmese refugees sit in a temporary camp in Mae Sot, Thailand, on Nov. 9, 2010

More than 140,000 refugees will be forced back to war-torn Burma unless Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva shows a rare bit of backbone in dealing with his country's increasingly powerful security forces. Last week, the nation's head of security announced its intention to close nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border after elections were held in Burma last fall. The announcement drew sharp criticism from human-rights groups and representatives of Burma's ethnic minorities who said the refugees would face persecution, torture, rape and worse if sent back to Burma under current conditions. "Burma is still a dangerous place — too dangerous for the refugees to return," says Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch.

Thailand has served as a safe haven for refugees from neighboring countries for four decades, sheltering hundreds of thousands over the years from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and, most recently, Burma. Ethnic Karen, Shan, Mon and others have been spilling into Thailand since the 1980s when Burma's military regime began launching a brutal series of armed campaigns to bring ethnic regions fighting for autonomy under its control. The Burmese military has a documented record of burning villages, torture, rape, summary executions and forcing villagers to serve as porters for soldiers and to work in other forms of slave labor.

Echoing security leaders, Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said recent elections in Burma "show that things are beginning to improve." But with leading opposition figures like Aung San Suu Kyi barred from running, and many ethnic groups disenfranchised by the military, Western governments and human-rights groups have labeled the elections a sham.

Furthermore, fighting has intensified in recent months as Burma's army attempts to crush ethnic militias who have refused to lay down their arms. "There is fighting in Shan state and Chin state, not just in Karen state. It is very unstable and people are still fleeing," says Naw Zipporah Sein of the Karen National Union. Ethnic Karen make up the majority of the refugees who face returning. "Even when there is no battle going on, villagers are still rounded up for forced labor, raped, tortured, killed and have their property stolen by the Burmese army. They are still using villagers as human minesweepers."

Panitan said Abhisit instructed security officials to prepare an evaluation of the situation before he would decide whether or not to shutter the camps. He says there is no timetable for sending the refugees back to Burma, and for that to happen, two conditions must be met: "that the situation for them is safe, and that Burma will accept them."

Sending some 140,000 Burmese refugees back to Burma against their will will not do Thailand's humanitarian image any favors. Thailand's record of compassion has already been marred by actions that can only be described as heartless: in 1988 students who fled the slaughter of democracy protesters by Burma's military government were handed over to the junta by Thailand's then Defense Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. In 1997, then Prime Minister Chavalit had Karen refugees, including women and children, pushed back into the path of a Burmese army offensive.

In late 2009, despite international protests, Abhisit repatriated over 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos, where the ethnic minority's persecution has been well documented. Earlier that same year, the Thai military was accused of pushing Rohingya boat people who had fled from Burma back out to sea. Abhisit ordered the practice stopped, but allegations again surfaced recently that such incidents have continued.

Many expected that Abhisit, who is Oxford educated and has a more international outlook than his predecessors, would place humanitarian principles first in matters relating to refugees when he became Prime Minister in late 2008. Instead, his record of callousness rivals Chavalit's. "Abhisit's record on refugees has been a catalog of violations of international refugee law," says Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International. Though Thailand has not signed the U.N. treaty that obliges its domestic laws to comply with the principle of nonrefoulement, or not forcibly returning refugees back to harm's way in their home country, it is unusual for nations in good international standing to do so. "As a matter of customary international law, Thailand cannot forcibly return refugees to countries where they will face persecution. Abhisit's government has done that time and time again."

But it's the Thai military — not the Prime Minister — that appears to be calling the shots in the nation's security matters these days. Military leaders allegedly pressured members of parliament to elect Abhisit Prime Minister in December 2008, and he relied on the military to suppress street protests by opposition Red Shirts in 2009 and 2010. The military vetoed a Ministry of Foreign Affairs decision to allow international observers along the Thai-Cambodian border, where fighting erupted earlier this year. It has been accused of using cluster bombs that have been outlawed by international law and has said it opposes signing the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions banning their use. More than 100 countries have signed the Convention. Thailand has yet to sign.

Should he send the refugees back, Abhisit would be satisfying no one but the military; there has been no public outcry in Thailand demanding refugees be returned to Burma. Should he overrule the military, he may "find himself pitted against the same security forces he has previously been unable or unwilling to bring in line," Amnesty's Zawacki says. Unless Abhisit can prevail over the hard-liners, his government will suffer another black eye it doesn't need. But those who will suffer most will be the refugees from Burma.