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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 UNHCR’s 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 government’s 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 UNHCR’s “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.

Human Rights Watch
Asia Division

Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.

We stand with victims and activists to bring offenders to justice, to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom and to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime.

We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable.

We challenge governments and those holding power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.

We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.

The staff includes Kenneth Roth, executive director; Michele Alexander, development director; Reed Brody, advocacy director; Carroll Bogert, communications director; Cynthia Brown, program director; Barbara Guglielmo, finance and administration director; Jeri Laber, special advisor; Lotte Leicht, Brussels office director; Patrick Minges, publications director; Susan Osnos, associate director; Jemera Rone, counsel; Wilder Tayler, general counsel; and Joanna Weschler, United Nations representative. Jonathan Fanton is the chair of the board. Robert L. Bernstein is the founding chair.

Its Asia division was established in 1985 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in Asia. Sidney Jones is the executive director; Mike Jendrzejczyk is the Washington director; Robin Munro is the Hong Kong director; Patricia Gossman is the senior researcher; Zunetta Liddell is the research associate; Jeannine Guthrie is NGO liaison; Sarah Cooke is the research assistant; Mickey Spiegel is a consultant; Olga Nousias and Tom Kellogg are associates. Andrew J. Nathan is chair of the advisory committee and Orville Schell is vice chair.

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126 BBC World Service, Thai Foreign Minister Surin in an interview with the East Asia Today program, July 9, 1998.

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