By SAW YAN NAING
RANGOON — The Thai junta, which has been ruling the country under martial law since May 22, has reportedly stepped up restrictions on the movement of more than 120,000 Burmese refugees living in camps along the Thai-Burma border.
Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Saw Honest, chairman of the Mae La refugee camp, said those restrictions included a general ban on travel outside the camps and a curfew.
“Refugees are banned from leaving the camp to seek jobs. Refugees are banned from leaving their homes from 6 pm to 6 am,” he said. “Only those who have special conditions such as medical treatment or other emergency cases can travel, but need to seek official permission.
“Respective Thai security units at every camp informed us about the regulations. We are not allowed to go outside the camp, refugees have been warned not to engage in logging and drug dealing,” added Saw Honest, who oversees the administration of Mae La, the largest Thai border camp, where some 40,000 Burmese refugees reside.
“Those who violate the rules will be punished. And for those who repeatedly violate the rules, their names will be deleted from refugee camp [registries], and they will no longer be allowed to live in the camp, and they may even be deported back to Burma,” he added.
Saw Honest said refugees with special circumstances requiring travel outside the camps, such as for education or health reasons, were required to seek official permission from the respective Thai security units at the camps before traveling beyond their confines.
“We have a problem with the restrictions,” Saw Honest said. “But we can’t do anything now as it is the order of the Thai army. We may sort it out to ease the restrictions later because it is not a good time to do it now.”
He said the restrictions had been communicated to refugees after a meeting between local Thai authorities and community-based organizations in Mae La and other camps on Tuesday.
“We held a meeting and informed the refugees about the rules. The plan just started today. But we don’t know how long it will last, as they didn’t tell us. I think it might last until next election,” Saw Honest said. The Thai junta, which has branded itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has said it plans to hold an election in October of next year.
The orders come amid an ongoing reform program enacted by the junta that has included a sweeping crackdown on undocumented migrant workers that has forced more than 200,000 Cambodian laborers to return home. Hundreds of Burmese migrant workers have also been scrutinized, detained and deported back to Burma since early June.
The latest development is likely to affect daily life for tens of thousands of Burmese refugees, some of whom have lived in the camps for 25 years—a span during which Thailand has seen three coups. There are nine refugee camps spread across the Thai-Burma border.
Duncan McArthur, partnership director of The Border Consortium (TBC), a nongovernmental organization that has been providing humanitarian aid to the Burmese refugees for more than 20 years, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that Thai authorities were applying restrictions already on the books.
“TBC understands that the Thai district authorities have been ordered to enforce existing regulations more strictly, which will include restricting refugee movements outside of camps. Refugees with special circumstances will still be able to apply for permission to travel.
“District authorities in Tak province have called a series of meetings with UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] and NGOs this week to clarify the situation,” McArthur said. “However, we understand that there will be no change in policy relating to the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees.”
He said the TBC was not aware of any plans for Thai authorities to conduct identity checks at the camps. “Refugee status determination procedures have essentially been suspended since 2005, and we are not expecting official screening processes for unregistered refugees to resume any time soon,” according to McArthur.
But Ye Min, a Burmese refugee at the Nu Po border camp, claimed that screening, official or otherwise, would be taking place.
“They [Thai army] want to know how many people are real refugees and how many people illegally came to stay in the camp and lack proper documents,” he said.
Ye Min added that there were fears among the refugee population that those without proper documents, such as UN registration cards recognized by the Thai government, would be deported. Rumors were circulating that even UN cardholders would be subject to deportation or would have their status as a recognized refugee revoked if found traveling or residing outside the camps, Ye Min claimed.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR held a meeting on June 27 with Karen community-based organizations including the Karen Refugees Committee, Karen Women’s Organization, Karen Youth Organizations, and Karen Office for Relief and Development (KORD), seeking opinions from refugees about the ongoing peace process between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups.
Asked about claims of impending refugee screenings, UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the UN refugee agency had not been informed of any such plan.
Led by Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and attended by representatives from four provinces including Tak, as well as NGOs, the UNHCR and other Thai authorities, a three-day meeting was held from June 17-19 in Mae Sot, Thailand, to discuss repatriation plans for refugees on the Thai-Burma border.
Over the last three years, the Burmese government and most ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements. Now, amid ongoing negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire accord, discussions among Thai authorities and aid groups on the border have turned to the eventual return of Burmese refugees to their homeland.
Thai authorities’ previously stated policy on the refugees is that they would be allowed to return to Burma on a purely voluntary basis.
McArthur said TBC was not aware of any change regarding that stance.
“TBC’s independent assessment remains that the conditions are not yet conducive for a voluntary return of refugees nor their sustainable reintegration in safety and with dignity,” he added.