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Burmese Refugees in Thailand at Risk
Press Backgrounder
As the Asian Development Bank begins its annual meeting in Chiang Mai, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the worrisome shift in the implementation of Thai refugee policy. Burmese refugees who remain in urban centers are increasingly vulnerable to arrest and, in some cases, forcible return to Burma, where their lives are at risk.

Related Material

Thailand Must Screen for Burmese Refugees
Press Release, November 3, 1998

UNHCR and Thai Government Failing to Protect Burmese Refugees
Press Release, October 6, 1998



New Measures for the Implementation of Thai Refugee Policy

Burmese Refugees and the Threat of Instability

Implications for Burmese Urban Refugees

Reception of New Arrivals and Group Status Determination

Repatriation Rhetoric and the Internal Flight Alternative


Human Rights Watch is concerned that security issues in the lead up to the May 6 - 8 Asian Development Bank annual meeting in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai could be used as a pretext for a broader crackdown on refugees there. There is a precedent for this. In February, heightened security concerns for the Bangkok UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meeting led to pressure on Burmese refugees and a crackdown on NGOs working on issues related to Burma. In advance of the ADB meeting, the Thai government has already dispatched thousands of Thai police and other security personnel to maintain the safety of conference participants in Chiang Mai.

Thailand has played host to Burmese refugees for nearly two decades. Gross human rights abuses by the Burmese government have prompted the outflows and created grave problems for its neighbor. The Thai government has pursued a humanitarian policy through which refugees fleeing conflict are afforded temporary asylum until the conflict in the area from which they fled ends. The refugee population in the camps has expanded from little more than 20,000 in the mid-1980s to nearly 120,000. The number continues to grow. Human Rights Watch, however, has often expressed concern about the quality of protection in Thailand. Forced returns, rejection at the frontier, and attacks on refugee camps have frequently occurred.

The change in Thai policy is primarily affecting Burmese in Thailand who fall into one of two groups: border refugees in camps and urban refugees. Though members of both groups are refugees deserving of international protection, Thai policy toward each has differed. The first group consists mainly of ethnic minority Karen and Karenni who have fled to Thailand as a result of conflict between the government and insurgent groups and gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese army in its counter-insurgency campaign. Such abuses have included forced labor, arbitrary executions, destruction of food crops, and forced relocation of villages. The majority of these refugees have fled from fighting or other gross violations of human rights in areas where the Burmese army and ethnic minority insurgent groups are engaged in conflict. Each of these is fighting for some degree of regional autonomy or independence from Burma. The Thai government has permitted refugees fleeing conflict to stay in the camps and receive basic humanitarian assistance delivered by private relief agencies. In 1998, UNHCR established three permanent field offices on the border to provide international protection to the refugees, but it has no role in providing humanitarian assistance to the camps. (There are also some 100,000 Shan refugees in the border region who do not have access to international protection or the camps).

The second group of refugees, urban refugees, consists principally of Burmese political dissidents who fled the Burmese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 but also includes some ethnic minority refugees who no longer feel safe at the border. Over the past decade, many of the dissidents have made their way to Bangkok to become urban refugees. In Bangkok, UNHCR provided refugee status determination procedures through which it either rejected the applicant or recognized him or her as a "person of concern." UNHCR staff counseled urban refugees to report to Maneeloy Burmese Student Center, a camp some 125 kilometers from Bangkok. Maneeloy was, with few exceptions, the sole gateway to resettlement in a third country and the pursuit of higher education. Refugees in the camp were supposed to refrain from political activity, but the policy was not regularly enforced.

Not all urban refugees were political dissidents. Following the December 1994 defection of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) from the main body of the Karen National Union (KNU), Karen refugees who no longer felt safe in the camps made their way to Bangkok in increasingly larger numbers. Initially, KNU members or members of their families moved to the capital because of the insecurity created by DKBA attacks on some of the refugee camps. Later, refugees affiliated with the DKBA and Karen Solidarity Organization (KSO) and KNU members who had experienced a fallout with the KNU leadership became urban refugees. At this point, UNHCR began to classify the urban caseload into refugees who it determined had protection available to them at the border, called "border cases," and refugees who demonstrated secondary fear of persecution at the border. The latter were permitted to enter Maneeloy.

New Measures for the Implementation of Thai Refugee Policy

As a result of the Thai government's heightened security concerns and a willingness to play a more direct role in refugee admission decisions the treatment of Burmese refugees in Thailand is now undergoing a significant turn for the worse.

Burmese Refugees and the Threat of Instability

The new direction in Thai refugee policy is in part a response to the siege of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok in October 1999 and that of the Ratchaburi Provincial hospital in January 2000. These events led to pressure from within the government for Thailand's security agencies to consolidate and improve their intelligence collection capacity and reduce future threats. Measures employed toward the achievement of greater security have had serious implications for Burmese urban refugees in Thailand.

On October 1, 1999, a group of armed Burmese seized the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok and held some thirty persons hostage. The hostage takers, members of the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW), demanded respect for human rights and democracy in Burma. After some negotiation, Thai authorities agreed to fly the VBSW members to the border in exchange for the release of the hostages. The VBSW took refuge across the border with the God's Army, a small Karen insurgent group led by two twelve-year-old twin boys, Johnny and Luther Htoo.

Both the Burmese and Thai government then sought to capture the VBSW members, a development which contributed to yet another confrontation. On January 24, a group of God's Army and VBSW troops seized the provincial hospital in Thailand's Ratchaburi province, holding over 500 people hostage. The ten men demanded that civilians from the besieged God's Army base be allowed to cross the border into Thailand and that the Thai army immediately cease its shelling of the area. The group claimed that the villagers were being shelled by both Burmese and Thai forces. On the morning of January 25, a Thai commando force ended the siege, killing the ten men and freeing the hostages. There is evidence that the hostage takers were summarily executed after the hospital had already been secured by the commandos.

Thai public opinion appears to have supported more stringent security measures. During the embassy siege, the public appeared to be sympathetic to the gunmen's cause. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sanan Kachornprasart went so far as to say that the government did not consider the men terrorists but dissidents seeking democracy in their own country. The attack on the Thai hospital, however, aroused negative public opinion and outrage from some members of the Thai public. Some Thai said that they could sympathize with the objectives of the group, but they could not condone an attack on a hospital and its patients. Thai opinion of Burmese in Thailand was already negatively shaped by the economic crisis, relatively high rates of unemployment, the perception that migrants were taking Thai jobs, and the role of some Burmese in the trafficking of methamphetamines to Thailand.

The events described above have been followed by a gradual tightening of restrictions on Burmese refugees. Conditions have changed most dramatically for Burmese refugees in urban areas because the incidents that upset the Thai government involved refugees from such areas. At the same time, Thai authorities have also tightened polices with respect to refugees in the border.

Implications for Burmese Urban Refugees

Thai policy makers apparently have made a decision to reduce the number of Burmese refugees in Bangkok and other urban centers, and to more closely regulate the movements of Burmese refugees in the country. Although the embassy and hospital sieges were the work of small, radical organizations, the Thai government has used the incidents to justify a wider crackdown that affects the entire population of urban Burmese.

From October to November 1999, the Thai government advocated that the more than 1,000 Burmese refugees registered in the Maneeloy Student Center be resettled in a third country. Australia, Canada, the United States, and a number of European Union countries responded positively and have since resettled hundreds of the Maneeloy population. In November 1999, the Thai government announced that it was closing Maneeloy and has allowed only a handful of refugees to enter the center since then. Even persons UNHCR determined to be refugees, or those who had been in immigration detention when the deadline passed were denied access. UNHCR has now said it can provide neither protection nor assistance in Bangkok because the Thai government considers anyone living outside of a camp to be an illegal immigrant. Though they will not refuse to conduct refugee status determination for Burmese in Bangkok, UNHCR will now counsel Burmese to report to one of the provincial admission boards charged with screening refugee aplications. If the board finds the applicant to be a refugee, that person must register with one of the existing camps. As of May, there were some six hundred Burmese in Bangkok who have approached UNHCR for advice on how they should proceed.

Some obstacles to the implementation of the new procedures remain. Burmese refugees travelling from Bangkok to the border have been vulnerable to arrest. In April, UNHCR received from the Thai government guarantees of safe passage for the refugees to the border. According to these guarantees, refugees are to be given a specific timeframe within which they must make the trip. This approach has yet to be tested in practice. It also remains unclear where refugees returning to the border would live. At the time of this writing, the Thai government had not designated a border reception center for urban refugees. Some refugees are also reportedly wary of the provincial admission boards as they have been established to review cases of refugees fleeing immediate fighting, not refugees who have fled for political dissent. That boards have also rejected a significant number of applicants has not built confidence, although the new procedures do provide for appeals.

The greatest risk posed to Burmese urban refugees is arrest and forced repatriation to Burma. On the night of February 28, 2000, five Burmese were deported to Burma across the Friendship Bridge linking Mae Sot in Thailand to Mywaddy in Burma. Four of these men had cases pending with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok and one had already been recognized as a refugee by UNHCR. Each had been involved in Burmese political dissident groups in Thailand, some had once been members of the armed resistance. The five Burmese had been detained in the Bangkok Immigration Detention Center (IDC) and were deported to the border along with a larger group of Burmese. While the rest of the group was dropped at the border, a Thai official forced these five men to cross into Mywaddy where Burmese authorities were waiting. A court in Mywaddy then reportedly sentenced the men to seven year sentences to be served in Moulmein prison. Two of the men, Saw Tin Oo and Tun Tun, are rumored, to have died as a result of torture, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm this.

Saw Tin Oo had been under arrest in Thailand since the October 1 hostage situation at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. On that day, Thai police apprehended Saw Tin Oo outside the embassy and accused him of being an accomplice to the siege. In the Bang Khen Special Detention Center, Saw Tin Oo was reportedly interrogated by both Thai and Burmese officials. He insisted that he was only an observer. Saw Tin Oo's picture then appeared in a November edition of a Burmese state magazine, International News Journal, which implicated him in the embassy hostage siege. Saw Tin Oo was eventually transferred to the IDC, from which he was deported. The Thai government proceeded to send this man back to Burma despite the fact that he was known and wanted by the Burmese government.

Urban refugees also fear that they could be caught up and deported in broader Thai government sweeps against Burmese migrant workers. With the forced return of the five refugees now a well-known incident, those remaining in Bangkok are concerned that they could meet a similar fate.

Some of the urban Burmese refugees would clearly not be safe in the camps. This is true of some members of the KSO, DKBA and KNU. Since the 1995 fall of the KNU headquarters at Mannerplaw, splits have emerged within the Karen insurgency. Because of their differences with the KNU, some refugees from the splinter groups or from the KNU itself who have conflicted with the insurgent leadership feel that they would be at risk in the refugee camps.

Reception of New Arrivals and Group Status Determination

Simultaneous to the heightened pressure on urban refugees, a new admissions procedure on the border remains fraught with uncertainties. Though not directly related to the tightening of policy associated with the two hostage incidents, the current method of operation of provincial admission boards has posed another challenge to protection of refugees. In 1999, the Thai government initiated an official process for refugee reception, status determination, and camp registration. The process is intended to proceed through three main steps. When new arrivals cross the border into Thailand, they are to first report to a reception center in one of the camps. At the reception center, local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials are to interview the refugees. The material collected in the interviews is then to be submitted to a provincial admission board consisting of representatives of various local government offices. The board is empowered to review the cases on a group basis and to determine if the applicants are refugees or economic migrants. If the applicants are rejected, they have the right to appeal the decision. Following the final decision, refugees are to be registered and admitted to a camp and economic migrants are to be deported. The Thai government's willingness to take greater responsibility for the status determination of refugees is commendable, but significant obstacles remain to the full operationalization of the provincial admission boards.

Refugees are required to report to reception centers, but at many points along the long border, no such centers exist. Though they are not figured into the relief calculus, the new refugees do receive assistance from private humanitarian relief organizations. In other places, reception centers are located at insecure sites. On April 21, the Thai army moved 757 Karenni refugees who were living on the edge of a camp in Mae Hong Son province to a site closer to the border overlooked by Burmese army bunkers. Reception centers must be accessible to newly arriving refugees, but locating a reception center close to a Burmese military position poses grave risks to the refugees, especially given the history of Burmese army attacks on camps.

After reporting to reception centers, refugees are interviewed by local MOI officials. UNHCR also conducts its own informal interviews. The MOI data is submitted to the provincial admission board and the board then makes a determination on whether the applicants will receive temporary asylum. The board is mandated to rule on thousands of refugees as one group. If the group is denied entry into the camps, they may appeal the decision as a group. This system of group screening directly violates international standards. Although refugees can be admitted on a group basis where a receiving country is facing a mass influx of people and individual determinations are logistically impossible, rejection of applicants on a group basis is not acceptable. Screening of refugees must be conducted on a case by case basis.

Although the concept of the review procedures is a positive development in Thai government policy, the manner in which it is currently being implemented is not providing effective protection to many people in need of international protection and is putting many refugees at risk of rejection and forced return. The Thai government is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the international standards for definition of a refugee, nor does it have its own domestic refugee law to offer legal guidance. The 1951 Convention defines a refugee as a person who "owning to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..." In the case of refugees on the border, the traditional Thai definition of a refugee used in official statements translates as "person fleeing conflict." UNHCR has pressed the Thai government to accept a broader definition of persons fleeing conflict and the effects of conflict, which would include a range of issues including forced relocations, forced portering and forced labor. Even this expanded definition falls short of what is needed to protect comprehensively Burmese refugees in Thailand. The Thai government should instead seek to determine whether the conditions are such that the person is deserving of international refugee protection. If it is found that an ongoing threat of persecution exists, the Thai government should afford protection to the refugees.

Because of the inconsistent application of criteria in status determination, the boards have already rejected some refugees while accepting others who have fled under similar circumstances. In September 1999, the Tak admission board rejected a portion of 1,800 new arrivals. The majority of those rejected were persons not fleeing immediate fighting but the forced relocation and destruction of their home villages. A reported 152 refugees were rejected by the same board in December. The Ratchaburi admission board did, however, decide to admit 1,000 refugees who fled a mid-January Burma army offensive. The official role of UNHCR in the admissions procedures is as an observer only. The Thai government has not formally invited UNHCR to intervene in cases. In practice, its staff has intervened on behalf of groups it felt had valid claims to fear of persecution. Each of the rejected groups are now in the appeal process and thus far, no refugee has been forced back to Burma. The danger remains, however, that the board could make a final ruling and seek to forcibly repatriate the refugees across the border. UNHCR and the international community must ensure that this does not happen.

Repatriation Rhetoric and the Internal Flight Alternative

Although the Thai government has said privately and publicly that it will not pursue repatriation of refugees under unsafe conditions, the Thai National Security Council (NSC) since July 1999 has publicly announced that the government plans to repatriate all Burmese refugees within the next three years. The public messages may in part be rhetoric aimed at the Thai public, but there have been some worrisome developments that give the impression that the government may be laying the groundwork for repatriation or that some local officials have misinterpreted the intent of the national government.

Action on the subject of repatriation has over the past two months taken two directions. First, the NSC has asked UNHCR to approach Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to propose setting up sites in Burma to protect and assist displaced Burmese so that they will not have to cross the border. UNHCR has requested access to these areas. The Burmese government has denied access thus far but has indicated that UNHCR could be allowed access at an undefined later date. Any return of Burmese refugees at this time would unequivocally expose them to manipulation or attack by the Burmese army. The Thai government needs to issue a clear directive to provincial authorities that any repatriation must be voluntary and accompanied by protection monitoring by UNHCR in Thailand and Burma.

In early 1999, the Thai Ninth Infantry Division proposed a similar plan for areas across the border from its jurisdiction. It then advocated the establishment of "peace villages." These would be camps on the Burmese side of the border which would receive assistance delivered from Thailand. The Burmese army would promise not to attack these camps. Ninth Infantry Division officers reportedly discussed the concept with their Burmese counterparts from the Coastal Command and had intended to proceed with the establishment of a camp at Meh Phya just across the border from Thailand's Ratchaburi province. The plan had proceeded to the point where refugees at Tham Hin camp were told to produce one hundred "volunteers" to relocate to the new site. The idea was abandoned after the Burmese army attacked near Mae Phya, propelling refugees into Thailand.

In January 1995, Mon refugees returned to three camps inside Burma following a cease-fire agreement between the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Burmese government. The KNU and KNPP differ from the NMSP in that the KNU has not yet entered a cease-fire with the government and though the KNPP once had one, it was broken within just months. Illustrating the vulnerability of sites in areas where no cease-fire exists, one camp of Karen internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Mae La Pho Hta was attacked and razed to the ground by a mixed contingent of Burmese army regulars and DKBA troops on April 1 and 2, 2000. KNU soldiers had been stationed near the camp to provide protection to the IDPs. The near 5000 IDPs resident in the camp fled across the border and are waiting for their cases to be reviewed by the Tak provincial admission board. The Burmese soldiers have now reportedly mined the area of Mae La Pho Hta.

There is also evidence that refugees in camps in Thailand in some isolated incidents have come under increased pressure to repatriate. In February, a district official in Mae Hong Son province reported that some 10,000 Karen refugees in Mae Khong Kha camp wanted to repatriate. The camp leader rebutted the district officer's report, saying that though the refugees ultimately wanted to return one day, they would only do so in a safe environment. The district office ignored the response and it proceeded to pass around a list for people to sign up for voluntary repatriation. No one signed and the camp commander eventually convened a camp meeting with Thai authorities present. During the meeting, the population clearly stated that they did not wish to return under the current conditions. Thai authorities had also in early 2000 discussed the return of Nu Pho camp. This idea too was later abandoned.

The proposition of creating safe areas in Burma (an internal flight alternative) or advocating repatriation is clearly premature. Hundreds of new refugees have continued to cross the border in each month this year. Villagers continue to face gross violations of human rights at the hands of the Burmese army. Forced labor, forced relocation of villages, destruction of food crops, arbitrary taxation and arbitrary executions persist in Burma's zones of conflict.


1. Forcible Return of Burmese: UNHCR and the international community should call on Thai and Burmese authorities to undertake a thorough investigation into the treatment and condition of the five Burmese returned to Burma on February 28. Burma should account for the whereabouts of all five refugees, and release those still in its custody to UNHCR. Thai officials responsible for the forced repatriation should be reprimanded. UNHCR must take steps to insure that detained Burmese refugees who identify themselves to the agency have access to international protection and will never be forcibly returned.

2. Internal Flight Alternative and Repatriation: In the current environment in Burma in which villagers are exposed to forced relocation, arbitrary execution, torture, forced labor, and the destruction of food crops, any move toward immediate repatriation is unacceptable. With neither a UNHCR presence in eastern Burma nor a political solution to the conflict, there would be little hope for the lasting security and the safe and durable return of refugees. Durable refugee return depends fundamentally on the willingness of the refugees to return and safe conditions and respect for human rights in the country of origin. The Thai government should issue immediately a directive to provincial authorities instructing them that repatriation cannot proceed until refugees can return voluntarily in safety and with dignity, with human rights guarantees and protection monitoring on both sides of the border. UNHCR must be integrally involved in any future discussions of repatriation between the government and refugees.

3. Provincial Admission Boards: The provincial admission boards must operate under a transparent and consistent procedure and must employ unambiguous criteria in status determination that comply with international standards set out in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Status determination should take place on a case by case basis with the right to appeal. Accession to and compliance with the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol as well as the promulgation of a Thai refugee law would greatly contribute to consistency and accountability. Thailand must abandon its current position that only those fleeing direct fighting are entitled to temporary stay in Thailand, in favor of a position which recognizes the Refugee Convention definition of "refugee" and places greater emphasis on the human rights abuses in Burma which forced refugees to flee. No refugee should be denied protection in Thailand. The boards should also consider convening and reviewing new cases on a regular and consistent basis.

4. Urban Refugees: The Thai government is entitled to decide where refugees will receive assistance but it is also obligated to ensure for the refugees safe passage, admission, care and protection within Thailand. Movement into a camp is not an acceptable option in every case. For those persons whose safety cannot be guaranteed at the border because of differences with the KNU, DKBA or other groups, Thailand must either provide a safe place of refuge or resettlement must remain an available option. Resettlement should be open without discrimination to any refugee who cannot otherwise receive international protection in Thailand.

5. Support for UNHCR: The international community must support and strengthen UNHCR in its current protection role in Thailand. Foreign embassies should actively intervene with the Thai government in support of UNHCR and make more frequent visits to the border to directly assess conditions there. The international community must insist that the Thai government comply with the international standards of voluntary return in safety and with dignity, respect for human rights, and protection monitoring by UNHCR. A resolution was unanimously adopted by the UN Commission for Human Rights in April 2000 calling on the Burmese government "To end the enforced displacement of persons and other causes of refugee flows to neighboring countries and to create conditions conducive to their voluntary return and full reintegration in safety and dignity." Until these conditions are met, there should be no no consideration given to repatriation of refugees to Burma.

6. Policy of the SPDC: Burmese authorities must end the abuses which have forced the refugees to flee to Thailand, and take concrete measures to implement the recommendations set forth in the April 2000 resolution of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In the resolution, the commission called for the SPDC to "ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association, movement and assembly, the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial judiciary and the protection of the rights of persons belonging to ethnic and religious group minorities, and to put an end to violations of the right to life and integrity of the human being, to the practices of torture, abuse of women, forced labour and forced relocations and to enforced disappearances and summary executions."