NGOs and human rights activists have called on the military to halt the repatriation of Karen refugees from temporary shelters in Ban Nong Bua and Ban Mae Usu, Tha Song Yang District, Tak Province.
On 5 February an appeal was submitted to the National Human Rights Commission requesting an investigation, out of fears for the safety of the refugees if they are forcibly repatriated and concerns that the repatriation violates their human rights when the Burmese side has not yet guaranteed their safety.
On 18 February, Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, Chair of the Subcommittee on Political, Civil and Community Rights of the NHRC, led a group to investigate the situation at the temporary shelters.
At the office of the Backpack Health Worker Team, the group heard reports on conditions in the Thai-Burma conflict zone from several organizations working the area, including Karen community-based organizations, the Thai Burma Border Consortium, Karen human rights groups, Solidarités, and Friends of Burma.
NHRC representatives get information from civil society organizations working in the area.
The discussion focussed on questions about the voluntary nature of the repatriation, security problems for refugees of forced to return, especially the problems of mines, forced labour exacted by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army who currently control the area, and food shortages. Also discussed was the problem of pressure by the military in the camps by means of words and restrictions on movement, on access to food and on assistance by foreign organizations in order to force refugees to leave the temporary shelters, and issues of transparency and participation by various agencies in the repatriation process.
Dr Niran stated that the issue was complex and that a military solution alone was insufficient. The military was just one mechanism that should be involved, not the sole basic mechanism. As a matter of policy, the government must look after Burmese refuges by upholding human rights principles and providing security. At the same time, it must ensure there are no repercussions for the Thai people.
Dr Niran said that the NHRC had invited the Prime Minister or his representative to discussions about a policy solution to this case on 23 February.
Director Nopadon and Tha Song Yang District Officer show the NHRC the route back to Burma across the Moei River used by the refugees.
Ban Loe Poe Hoe seen from Thailand. The Thai military says that most refugees from Ban Nong Bua temporary shelter will go to this village.
Dr Niran said there must be short- and long-term actions. The repatriation of refugees must take into account their rights and security, be free of compulsion, and involve participation. There must be no pressure to make this a purely military matter. He proposed that the government order the participation of independent agencies. Long-term cross-border negotiations to ensure peace would be difficult and must continue.
Journalists reported that before the visit to the temporary shelters, Nopadon Watcharajotbowon, Commander of Special Unit 35 in Mae Sot, and Phokhakon Sinsakonwat, Tha Song Yang District Officer, had given the group a summary report at the Tha Song Yang District Office, where Mr Phokhakon explained that more than 4,000 refugees had entered since 2 March 2009. The Thai had provided 4 shelters, two of which remain, namely Ban Nong Bua and Ban Mae Usu, with a total population of 1,100, since small groups have been going back.
“I am confident that the military have not mistreated them because in fact the number of people has gone down”, said the District Officer.
Mr Phokhakon also said that there were people who sneaked in to get food, because they saw the NGOs giving assistance. The military and administrative authorities were investigating this. It was also observed that over the past 8 months, the refugees had refused to leave because of these benefits.
The NHRC group later met Karen refugees at Ban Nong Bua and Ban Mae Usu temporary shelters. The military were asked not to follow them when they interviewed the refugees so that they could learn the truth, but the military still listened in to the interviews.
Collecting information at Ban Nong Bua.
Collecting information at Ban Mae Usu.
On 5 February, the Subcommittee on Political, Civil and Community Rights held a meeting with representatives from Karen organizations, academics and human rights activists to get information on the repatriation of Karen refugees. On 10 February, a meeting was called to hear the opinions of relevant government agencies (3rd Army, National Security Council and Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior), civil society, UNHCR, and Belgian, Canadian, US and EU diplomatic representatives.