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Flurry of Rumor and Counter Rumor Regarding Repatriation is Detrimental to Refugees

By Burma Partnership  •  July 22, 2014

20-June-2011-SIMON ROUGHNEEN-The IrrawaddyA week ago, rumors began doing the rounds that the Thai military plans to repatriate the 130,000 or so displaced persons from Burma living in nine camps in Thailand along the length of the Burma-Thailand border in the relatively immediate future.  The rumors started when General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), mentioned that the refugee issue had been discussed with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army.  On 14 July, the Bangkok Post then quoted an unnamed Thai military source saying that working teams have sorted 130,000 refugees into three groups as part of preparations to send them home, a process expected to take around a year or more.  A Burma Border Guard Force officer also told Mizzima on 15 July that armed ethnic groups in Karen State would allegedly cooperate in the resettlement of refugees on their return home.

However, according to DVB, Colonel Weerachon Sukondhadpatipak, a spokesman for the Thai military, refuted the rumors: “I don’t think this [repatriation] will happen at this moment.  It is an issue we need to solve, but it doesn’t mean we are sending the Burmese people back to [Burma],” Weerachon said. “It is a long process that needs to be discussed with all concerned parties.”  Indeed, nationalities would first need to be verified and people head-counted.

Furthermore, Iain Hall, Senior Coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reassured people that “UNHCR is not aware of any changes in [Thai] government policy, or of any government timeframe to repatriate refugees.”  Duncan McArthur, Director of the Border Consortium, a coalition of 10 international non-governmental organizations delivering humanitarian assistance to camps on the border, confirmed this view, emphasizing that “there has not been any policy change regarding refugee return since the [NCPO] assumed power in Thailand.  This was the consistent message from the Thai Army and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to refugee leaders […] during [meetings in] June.”

Then, on 17 July, the Thai Department of Information, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, clarified its position on the refugee situation through a public statement.  The statement claimed that both sides have committed to work closely together “to prepare for a safe return in the future in accordance with humanitarian and human rights principles,” and also emphasized that “the discussion was in general terms with no specific timeframe.”  Furthermore, the statement spoke of the importance of “a sustainable return…in safety and dignity,” and highlighted the fact that “further discussions are needed with all relevant partners and International Organizations, including UNHCR, in this preparation to ensure the success of the process.”

It is imperative that both the Burma and Thai authorities are clear and transparent as regards their intentions.  The Thai authorities have set out their principles, and it is only to be hoped that they now honor them.  However, the Burma Government must do the same.  The current flurry of rumor and counter rumor is causing panic, confusion, anxiety and frustration among the refugees; they have already suffered enough, and it is vital that they do not suffer any further – either from the many current uncertainties as to their status and future, or from persecution or human rights abuses if they are repatriated prematurely.  An unambiguous, principled and firm statement from the Burma Government would be a positive start.  But what the refugees are really looking for is a genuine commitment by all parties to the protection of their human rights, and to their inclusion in the ongoing dialogue.  Recent developments have only served to further undermine their already precarious position.

We reiterate our calls from a month ago, namely that representatives of the refugee camps and of community-based organizations must be included in any future discussions about the status of refugees or their potential repatriation; that repatriation of refugees must only take place when circumstances are appropriate, when it is genuinely safe to return, and when all refugees’ human rights are guaranteed by the Burma Government; and, most importantly, that such repatriation must be completely voluntary.

Finally, it should be the Burma Government – and specifically President Thein Sein – whom the Thai authorities should be meeting: the implication from recent developments is that the Burma Army is still running the show.  It is also worth remembering – should anyone have forgotten – that it is the Burma Army whom most of the refugees were fleeing in the first place.  It is easy to see why refugees might be suspicious and cynical about Burma Army assurances, despite the winning words of the Thai authorities.

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