(New York) – Thai immigration officials forcibly returned three Myanmar opposition activists to Myanmar, putting them at grave risk of persecution and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar junta authorities should immediately reveal the whereabouts of the activists – Thiha, 38, Htet Nay Win, 31, and Saw Phyo Lay, 26 – and any charges against them.
On April 1, 2023, Thai authorities arrested the three members of the opposition group Lion Battalion Commando Column in the border town of Mae Sot in Tak province on illegal entry charges. On April 4, Thai immigration officials handed them over to a junta-aligned Border Guard Force in Myawaddy township in Karen State, Myanmar.
“Thai officials colluded with the Myanmar junta by unlawfully returning these three opposition activists, whose lives and freedom are threatened,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities disregarded the grave dangers the men face in Myanmar.”
Myanmar media reported that the Border Guard Force troops shot and wounded the men when they tried to escape. Informed sources said the men were later handed over to junta security forces.
The Thai government has increasingly collaborated with Myanmar’s junta and aligned forces to harass, arrest, and forcibly return asylum seekers, including members of opposition groups who have fled to Thailand since the February 2021 military coup. On March 22, 2023, Thai authorities raided 40 buildings in Mae Sot used by members of the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces and asylum seekers from Myanmar.
Since the coup, the Myanmar junta has carried out a nationwide campaign of mass killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate attacks that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Given the junta’s widespread human rights violations, forcible returns of asylum seekers and refugees to Myanmar violate the international legal principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits countries from returning anyone to a country where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm. Even though Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is bound to the principle of nonrefoulement under customary international law.
In addition, Thailand has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Thailand has incorporated the provisions of both treaties into its newly enacted Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance. The law prohibits actions to deport or extradite a person to another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being tortured or forcibly disappeared.
“Thai and Myanmar authorities appear to have cut a deal that puts asylum seekers at grave risk,” Pearson said. “The United Nations and concerned governments should publicly press Thailand to end these serious violations of international law and demand that Myanmar immediately account for the three deported opposition activists.”