By SOF Editor on Wed, 02/10/2010 - 11:41am
Civic and refugee activist groups hope talks with the Thai government will ensure the safety of Karen refugees from Burma who face deportation.
Talks Wednesday between civic groups and Thailand's Human Rights Commission came after strong efforts by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, diplomats and rights groups prevented the deportation of 1,700 Karen.
The Thai military last Friday tried to push the Karen back to Burma, which they fled last year to avoid fighting between Karen rebels and the Burmese military.
Soe Aung, a Burmese activist, says now it is important for refugee activists and the Thai government to cooperate to ensure the refugees are safe when they do return to Burma.
"Official policy of the Thailand government is that they are not going to deport any refugees until the situation is normal; so that the refugees will not face any life threatening situation, such as landmines," he said. "They need to have better cooperation interagency of the government - make priority of safety of people because of landmines food shortages - based on these factors."
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn says the final decision about when the Karen will be sent back lies with military commanders near the border with Burma. But, he says, the military will consult with refugee aid groups. Panitan says Karen who already have returned did so willingly.
"They plan to resume the program once civil society and others have been satisfied with the information about this program," said Panitan. "Basically, we receive the report from the officers on the ground that people volunteer to go back. They have been moving back and forth already across border.
Rights workers say the main block to the Karen's return is increased activity by Burma's military over recent months. Debbie Stothardt is spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network, which pushes for political change in Burma.
"What should concern us is the fact that over 100,000 people were newly displaced in eastern Burma alone - that's a very concerning statistic because it's telling to us that the situation is getting worse in eastern Burma," she said. "So any moves to push people back into areas which are notoriously land mined, which are extremely insecure goes against international principles."
Burma has been trying to quash armed ethnic rebels in the country. Over the past several months, refugees and Burmese dissidents have reported increasing military activity in the country.
The talks in Bangkok took place Wednesday as a court in Burma sentenced a U.S. citizen, Nyi Nyi Aung, to at least three years jail on charges of forging documents and undeclared foreign currency. He was arrested in September on arriving in Rangoon.
The charges included failure to renounce his Burmese nationality once he took U.S. citizenship.
Burmese activists in Thailand say the sentence was handed down in a closed hearing at the Insein prison in Rangoon. Rights groups say Burma's military government holds more than 2,000 political prisoners.