|Bamboo huts with leaf roofs, built by refugees, dot the hills of Mae La Oon camp southwest of Mae Sariang in northern Thailand. (Photo: Dieter Telemans / TBC)|
A human rights organization said some Burmese former political prisoners in Thailand should be resettled in third countries, as they do not want to return to Burma.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said ex-prisoners could face serious challenges or potential punishment if they are forced to return to Burma when the camps close in the future.
“The AAPP is urging respective governments of third countries to help resettle former political prisoners who want to go there, as soon as possible,” said Bo Kyi, joint-secretary of the Thailand-based organization, which support Burmese prisoners.
The AAPP also urged Thailand and foreign governments that have supported refugees on the Thai-Burma border to not forcibly repatriate former political prisoners and consult them on their desires for the future.
Burmese refugees escaping their country’s long-running ethnic conflict have lived camps on the border for many years. In the past year, as the prospects for peace in Burma have grown brighter, Thailand and foreign donors have announced plans for the repatriation of the border refugees.
The AAPP has stated that there are 37 former political prisoners in Umpiem Mai camp, nine in Nu Po and about 20 in other refugee camps.
Last month, AAPP secretary Tate Naing met in Rangoon with a United States government official responsible for resettlement of refugees. During their meeting, the US official asked for a list of names of former political prisoners living in refugee camps in Thailand.
Hla Than, a former political prisoner from Umpiem Mai camp, said his health condition had already been affected by many years in prison and therefore his life would be in danger if he was rearrested and imprisoned for any political activity.
He said he does not want to go back to Burma because he is worried that his family will suffer again.
“The government has yet to announce amnesty for Burmese citizens who are outside the country, for various reasons, and who want to return home legally,” Hla Than said, “So I don’t want to go back at all. I will resettle in a third country.”
Bo Kyi stressed that no one could guarantee that the political situation in Burma was irreversible and would continue towards positive changes.
He said former prisoners also face other challenges when returning home, such as a lack of employment opportunities and job skills, and high living costs in cities like Rangoon.
“Since the Burmese government doesn’t provide any assistance to those who want to return home, they may have to decide to resettle in the third countries,” said the AAPP joint secretary. “We understand and are sympathetic with them.”
The US, Canada and European governments annually welcome the resettlement of Burmese refugees in their countries. However, refugees have to be recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as persons of concern (POC) first and then wait for the permission from Thailand in order to leave for any third country.
Some former political prisoners, who came to border areas and arrived in refugee camps after 2006, have yet to be granted the POC status. They are currently under care of relief agencies for food and shelter that support the refugee camps on the border.