Update on Karen Refugee Situation
Excerpt from 19 January 1996 Bangkok Post, headlined "SLORC to accept 70,000 refugees":
"Burma has agreed to allow over 70,000 of its citizens who have taken refuge in camps along the border to return home. An agreement was reached at yesterday’s meeting in Myawaddy of the Joint Local Thai-Burmese Border Committee, according to Col. Suvit Maen-muan. At the meeting, Col. Suvit and a team of five officials met the team of Lt. Col. Kyaw Hlaing, and the latter accepted a proposal on the return of over 70,000 refugees. A list has been drawn up of over 9,000 refugees at Sho Klo camp in Tha Song Yang who are to be voluntarily repatriated as soon as Burma is ready, Col. Suvit said."
70,000 means the entire population of Karen refugees registered in all refugee camps in Thailand. This agreement has occurred despite the fact that the latest KNU / SLORC talks broke down and that SLORC is now stepping up military activities in most areas, especially Taungoo and Papun Districts. Most of the refugees would be forced back to Taungoo, Papun, and Pa’an Districts, even though more refugees are arriving from all of these areas right now. In Taungoo and Papun Districts SLORC has been systematically burning crops and villages and forcing villagers into labour camps for months. In Pa’an District SLORC has blocked all flow of food, goods and medicines from towns to the villages, followed by the DKBA going around and confiscating ALL rice, livestock, cooking pots and other necessities they can get their hands on, resulting in people fleeing to the forests to hide in clusters of 1 or 2 families - the situation in all these areas is increasingly desperate (see related KHRG reports and Burma Issues Dec/95 newsletter). Furthermore, upon repatriation these refugees would be screened by SLORC, and any who are seen as having relatives in the KNU would face arrest or execution. Many of the rest would be impounded in forced labour camps. The repatriation would be anything but voluntary.
On the positive side, this Border Committee is not the Thai Government, so this is not a fait accompli as yet - which only means that it is crucial to act on this now before the Thai government joins in. The Thai Government is under pressure to go along with this - there is an increasingly vocal lobby of Thai businessmen who are losing money in Mae Sot and other border towns because of SLORC’s closure of the border, and they are telling the Government to give SLORC whatever it wants. Also, the Thai press (thanks to Army influence) has been increasingly portraying Karen as "bad" thanks to the recent wave of DKBA attacks, many of them against Thai citizens. The Thai media no longer distinguishes between DKBA, KNU, and the refugees, they just report "Karen killing Thais", and quote Thais saying things like "I feel like we’re becoming a colony of the Karens".
Foreign governments have enough leverage with the Thai Government to effectively block this move for the time being if they want to. If such a repatriation began, UNHCR would seek a role but would probably be refused by both the Thais and SLORC. Even if they were allowed, UNHCR has proven in Bangladesh that it cannot be relied on to protect refugees, but is more interested in whitewashing the forced repatriation operation. Grassroots pressure on foreign governments is therefore needed to prevent this initiative from going any further.