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The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expresses grave concern over the Thai military's attempts to suppress the news coverage of its deportation of 4,000 Hmong refugees from their camp in Thailand's northern province of Petchabun in December 2009.

The Thai Army blocked both Thai and foreign news crews from entering a major Hmong refugee camp in Baan Huay Nam Kao village, preventing them from reporting on the Thai Army's relocation operation. The Army, in the meantime, held a press conference in a military camp in Pitsanulok province, some 100 kilometers away from the Ban Nam Khao refugee camp.

The journalists were forced to camp at  the entrance to the shelter site, waiting for a chance to get snapshots and video footage of the Hmong men, women and children being transported in military trucks and buses heading for Laos.

"The army's banning of the on-site news coverage of the deportation not only violates media freedom and public access to information guaranteed under the current Constitution but also further deprives the right of this vulnerable ethnic group to be heard given the media's already scant reportage about their situation," SEAPA said.

The plight of Hmong asylum seekers is already under-reported in the Thai media. The latest incident showed the Army's effort to influence how the refugees' deportation should be reported in the media.

The deported Hmongs had fled Laos for fear of political persecution due to their community's past alliance with the United States in the 1970s. Hmongs assisted the US in its "secret war" against the communist Lao Liberation Front. Some of the Hmongs latter settled in third countries under a United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees-coordinated resettlement program, while others chose to seek refuge in Thailand in the military-controlled camps. However, under a bilateral agreement signed by Thailand and Laos in 2007, these asylum seekers were considered as illegal immigrants and subjected to deportation under the Thai immigration law.

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