(New York, September 25, 2003)
-- The Thai government should immediately release fifteen Burmese activists arrested on September 18 in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, Human Rights Watch said today.
Thai police arrested the dissidents, who are members of several Burmese opposition groups, as they arrived at the embassy to stage a demonstration marking the fifteenth anniversary of the 1988 coup that brought to power Burma's current military government, now known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The demonstrators were sent to Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center, where authorities are holding them on immigration charges.
"Thai police arrested these demonstrators solely for attempting to express their political opinions. Free speech is a universal human right not reserved only for citizens."
executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch
"Thai police arrested these demonstrators solely for attempting to express their political opinions," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Free speech is a universal human right not reserved only for citizens."
At least seven of the detainees have been registered as "persons of concern" by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A spokesperson for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that those holding UNHCR documents would be relocated to camps along the Thai-Burmese border, while the rest would be deported.
The protestors had planned to call for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese political prisoners. The SPDC has held Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), in custody since May 30. She and other NLD leaders were arrested after members of the Union Solidarity Development Association, an organization created by the Burmese government, attacked them in Depayin in northern Burma.
As many as two million Burmese citizens reside in Thailand. Approximately 125,000 live in camps near the Burmese border, but the rest are classified by Thailand as "illegal immigrants." Thailand has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, and has no legal process to determine whether immigrants face a well-founded fear of persecution in Burma, which would entitle them under international law to protection as refugees.
Many Burmese citizens in Thailand are members of ethnic groups that face severe human rights violations in Burma. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have reported widespread abuses by the military, particularly in border areas where non-Burman ethnic groups predominate. Villages are often destroyed, and the residents forced to relocate. The army regularly requires villagers to provide unpaid labor, such as in building roads or working as porters for soldiers. Residents of Burma's seven ethnic states face the constant threat of arbitrary detention, torture, rape and murder by the military.