The influx of refugees and the fighting in May 2011 between Myanmar troops and Karenni soldiers near the village of Ta Daw Naw District in Shadaw and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Kyarinnseikgyieat in Karen State have become a great security challenge for both, Myanmar and Thailand. Earlier in April, the National Security Council Secretary-General of Thailand Pliensri Thawil announced the government’s intention to close nine border camps and repatriate over 140,000 refugees from Myanmar. However, political instability and the ongoing fighting in Myanmar have joined the influx of refugees into Thailand.
This raises the question after giving asylum to refugees for over three decades, why is the Thai government has decided to repatriate a number so huge? Is this an effort by the Thai government to improve relations with the newly formed government of Myanmar? If so, what are the prospects for the refugees after their repatriation?
The Thai government, like many others had the impression that once a stable civilian government is formed in Yangon, which could easily send refugees from Myanmar. However, despite a civil government was formed last year, Myanmar’s army has continued its operations against ethnic groups. A conflict broke out between insurgents and ethnic militia groups around the border town of Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar after the general elections of November 2010, forcing more than 20,000 civilians across the border with Thailand.
The increased influx of refugees in Thailand and the consequent problems of illegal trade, drugs and human trafficking, disease, only heightens the security concerns of Thailand. Latest figures from the Consortium of NGOs border between Burma and Thailand show that there are about 1,43,000 refugees living in camps in the border. Displaced persons who occupy the nine fields are mainly from Myanmar and the majority are ethnic Karen and Karenni ethnic groups. Another 50,000 asylum seekers living outside the camps belonging to other ethnic minorities and some are even political dissidents or pro-democracy movement.
The status of refugees will only continue to deteriorate because of political decisions taken by Thailand. Recently, Bangkok has decided to reduce food aid to refugee camps around 20 percent. Furthermore, the protection of refugees in Thailand has suffered from the lack of a proper legal framework. Bangkok has no asylum law and is not a signatory to the UN Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, NGOs and UNHCR have limited access to the border camps and the projection of the deportations of refugees are difficult. Thailand to maintain cordial bilateral relations with the Myanmar government and improve its new investment opportunities in Yangon, has taken into account the plight of these refugees. Thus, many refugees are given no access to basic health services, education and other services, as they are not legally registered.
Thailand now priority is economic growth, which is hampered by commitments to protect refugees. Thailand is worried about losing their investment opportunities in Myanmar to China. In April 2011, China overtook Thailand as the main investor in Myanmar with
Chinese accumulation of U.S. investment $ 9.6 billion, while Thailand remained slightly behind the U.S. around $ 9.5 billion. Most investment projects in Thailand are limited by the continuing conflict along the border areas between Thailand and Myanmar. For example, one of Thailand’s largest companies in the construction had to stop construction of a sea port in Dawei Myanmar River in southeastern Myanmar, which had invested around U.S. $ 8.6 billion in the road to this port must pass through the conflict broke the Karen State.
For these reasons, despite protests from human rights groups and the disapproval of the international community, in 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva repatriated more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos. This had a precedent in 1998 when for the first time that Thailand’s former defense minister, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh had sent a force to Myanmar refugees who fled to escape military persecution by the Government of Myanmar pro-democracy protests . The fear among the refugees being forcibly pushed back into the war zone in Myanmar therefore remains high.
Meanwhile, Thailand has also tried other possible ways to handle the growing number of refugees. In 2005, Bangkok initiated a program of resettlement of refugees to third countries in the West. So far, about 70,000 refugees who entered into Thailand have been resettled in 12 different countries. However, the refugee population has not reduced and the continuing clashes in the border are forcing over the border in Myanmar each year.
The voluntary repatriation of refugees at this stage will have a major impact on bilateral relations between the two countries. Thailand is the current council president of the United Nations Human Rights and any such actions not only draw harsh condemnation of the Thai government, but also undermine its image internationally and jeopardize their relationship with the countries West. Forced repatriation will only bring short term solutions and will be detrimental in the long term. These refugees will return the increased load of the host country, as has often happened in the past, becoming a source of irritation between the two countries. There is also potential for conflict, both among applicants and among local Thais and refugees from Myanmar.