Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thai army says Myanmar refugees' return halted

BANGKOK – The Thai army said that the planned return of more than 100 ethnic Karen refugees to military-run Myanmar _ opposed by rights groups as dangerous _ was halted Friday.
Col. Noppadol Watcharajitbaworn, the local military commander in the Thai province of Tak where the refugees are sheltering, said the group of 30 families who planned to go back Friday changed their minds after talking with representatives from Western embassies, the U.N. and non-governmental organizations.
Critics of the move had said the army was pressuring the refugees to return, even though their village area is believed to be infested with land mines due to Myanmar's war with ethnic insurgents.
The Karen Women Organization and other groups had said that Thailand planned to send back 1,700 Karen from two temporary camps in Tak province by Feb. 15.
Thailand denies any deadline and says they will not be sent back against their will.
Noppadol said 12 refugees had gone back to their village in Myanmar Friday morning before the embassy and U.N. officials arrived, but said they had then come back again, and that such movement back and forth was normal as people repaired their homes and tended their livestock.
"When the refugees don't want to go back, we have to let them stay, but if it's their will to go back to their hometown, we will assist them as much as we can," he said.
The Karen Women Organization delivered Friday an open letter to the Thai government co-signed by 75 Thai and Myanmar social action groups, calling for any repatriation plans to be suspended.
A London-based human rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has said the refugees could face abuses, including forced labor and rape, if they go back.
Myanmar has faced ethnic rebellions along its borders since the country, then called Burma, became independent in 1948. The Karen insurgent group, the Karen National Union, has been fighting for more than 60 years for greater autonomy from Myanmar's central government, but its strength has dwindled over the past decade due to army offensives and divisions within its ranks. Critics accuse the Myanmar government of brutality against civilians in its insurgency campaigns.
There are about 160,000 long-staying refugees staying at Thai camps along the border with Myanmar.