(New York) - A Thai government plan requiring all Burmese refugees to move to camps along the Burmese border by March 31 will undermine efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. The forced relocation of Burmese refugees to camps is a clear attempt to improve relations with the military junta in Rangoon.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States, European Union, ASEAN, Japan, the United Nations and others working for democracy in Burma to convince the Thai government to reverse its decision.
According to the Thai authorities, those who fail to register at the camps––including officially recognized refugees––will be arrested and deported back to Burma, where many will face imprisonment and mistreatment. Those who do not register will no longer receive protection or assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thailand, and they will be barred from resettlement abroad.
Human Rights Watch said that the purpose of this new policy, which affects some 3,000 Burmese refugees, is to destroy the small but vocal Burmese pro-democracy movement based in Thailand. UNHCR has protested these plans to no avail.
“Forcing urban refugees into rural border camps is an attempt to drive a stake through the heart of the Burmese democracy movement in Thailand,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Unless the international community intervenes, the reward for democracy activists who have spent the past fifteen years fighting tyranny is to be sent to remote border camps where they will be held incommunicado, or, if they resist this encampment, they will face arrest and deportation to Burma.”
International law allows the restriction of a refugee's right to freedom of movement and choice of residence only when required for a reason such as national security, and then only for so long as the emergency or threat persists. While the Thai government claims a national security and public order justification for the move, it has presented no evidence that recognized refugees in Thailand have caused any such problems requiring it to put all such persons into virtually closed camps.
Human Rights Watch said that the real purpose of requiring refugees to move to rural camps is made clear by rules barring residents from using mobile phones or the Internet while in the camps. This will make it impossible for them to communicate their concerns about events in Burma to the outside world. They will also be unable to convey information about potential security problems in the camps, which are located near the often volatile Burma border.
“The Thai government seems happy to have Burmese in the country to provide the cheap labor that is one of the backbones of the Thai economy, but only so long as they keep quiet,” said Adams. “It has tried and failed to intimidate activists into silence. So now it is moving activists into what are little more than open detention centers.”
After the 1990 crackdown by the Burmese military on democracy activists, including the election-winning National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, many Burmese democracy activists fled to Thailand for safety.
Previous Thai governments allowed Burmese activists to reside in Thailand and carry out their pro-democracy and human rights activities. Cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Mae Sot, with their proximity to Burma and their modern telecommunications infrastructure, became the center of Burmese pro-democracy activities.
Though Thailand is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention, it is nonetheless bound to respect the principle of customary international law called non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of an individual to a state where he or she is likely to face persecution.
Since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took office in 2001, the Thai government has put the improvement of business and political relations with Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) at the top of its agenda at the expense of individual rights. Thailand now regularly expels as many as 10,000 Burmese migrants a month in “informal deportations” to Burma. While many are able to bribe their way back into Thailand, others have faced persecution or other ill-treatment by Burmese government soldiers and intelligence officials, and by some of the ethnic-based armed groups operating along the border. Under an agreement between Thailand and Burma, Thailand also deports some 400 “illegal”(that is, undocumented) Burmese migrants each month from the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok to Burma—directly to a holding center operated by Burmese military intelligence.
In May last year, the Thai authorities arrested and detained thirty-four pro-democracy activists, including a three-year-old child, for staging a peaceful protest in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok to mark the fourteenth anniversary of the 1990 Burmese election won by the NLD. The Thai government only backed down from its plan to deport the group to Burma after intense pressure and lobbying from the human rights and international community. In 2003, Thaksin was clearly displeased when Burmese protestors—including some recognized refugees—demonstrated in front of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok after the May 30 attack on Aung San Suu Kyi. Thai police arrested and detained twenty-six Burmese demonstrators—including two children—after two separate rallies.
Human Rights Watch called on those in the international community supporting democracy in Burma to publicly and privately oppose the Thai government’s plans, since the Thai government has sometimes been responsive to such international pressure in favor of human rights and refugee protection in the past.
“The Thai government has responded in the past to international pressure on Burma,” said Adams. “Governments and international organizations need to ask Thaksin whether he is on the side of activists for human rights and democracy or the generals in Rangoon.”
A February 2004 Human Rights Watch report, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Thai Policy toward Burmese Refugees and Migrants,” documented how the Thai government has embarked on systematic policy of repression of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers from Burma. The past four years have seen increasing crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement in Thailand, including pressure on the UNHCR to cease refugee status determination of Burmese asylum seekers conducted under its mandate, and instructing government agencies to closely monitor, and if necessary, halt the activities of pro-democracy groups.
The Burmese refugees were given extremely short notice to report to the camps. The Thai National Security Council informed UNHCR about the March 31 deadline on March 9. UNHCR subsequently issued a flyer about the pending relocation on March 11 (See Annex below). UNHCR and relief organizations have expressed concerns about the difficulties of reaching all urban Burmese refugees in Thailand – a group that lives under constant threat of arrest and deportation and thus frequently moves from place to place – by the March 31 deadline.