As this report has highlighted, protection for Burmese refugees in Thailand over the past fourteen years has been inconsistent and all too often non-existent, due largely to the policies of the Thai government and UNHCR. In almost no way can Thai policy be said to comply with international refugee norms and standards, and in many respects UNHCRs policies in Thailand do not even comply with its own guidelines and policies. Burmese refugees in Thailand have suffered needlessly as a result.
The reasons for the lack of protection have been outlined in detail. Strategic and economic interests, lessons learned from experience with Indochinese refugees, and a lack of an adequate legal framework explain much of the Thai governments actions. The UNHCR, constrained by its need to maintain relations with Thailand as the host government, nevertheless has been unnecessarily weak in its efforts to challenge Thai policies that undermine refugee protection. Its perpetuation of an essentially discriminatory system of refugee status determination and its excessively narrow interpretation of the definition of refugee have both worked against refugee interests.
The change in the economic situation in Thailand and the installation of the Chuan Leekpai administration in November 1997 all point to a new Thai perspective on relations with Burma. The new administration has made commitments to human rights and has supported calls for a reevaluation of ASEAN policy towards Burma.126 This could lead to an improvement in the treatment of refugees.
Unfortunately, an important opportunity for UNHCR to strengthen its protection role, particularly with regard to the refugees in the border camps, appears to have been missed in the current negotiations with the Thai government on a role for UNHCR in the border region. All indications at the time this report went to press suggested that UNHCRs new role worked out with Thailand would be little changed from its current one. It apparently did not obtain sufficient safeguards that it would have full and unimpeded access to all Burmese refugees, that it would be allowed to conduct screening of new arrivals for refugee determination purposes, that eventual repatriation would only take place when the human rights conditions in Burma were conducive to return, or that UNHCR would be allowed to monitor the voluntariness of repatriation on a case by case basis. UNHCR also appeared to have made little public effort to pressure the Thai government to relocate camps to a safe but accessible distance from the border.
The exact details of the negotiations and resulting agreement remain unclear. The lack of transparency with which UNHCR has conducted its affairs with the Thai government and its unwillingness to engage in an open andconstructive dialogue with NGOs regarding refugee protection in Thailand has not inspired confidence, either among the refugees themselves or among NGO partners.
The opportunity still exists for UNHCR to press the Chuan administration for the best possible agreement which would enable the office to effectively carry out its protection mandate in relation to Burmese refugees. It remains to be seen whether it will do so.
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