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Controversy Over Future of Burmese Refugees in Thailand - 2003-06-16

Thailand is currently hosting one of the largest refugee populations in Asia, with nearly a quarter million displaced Burmese. About half are languishing in camps along the Thai-Burmese border, while the other half work illegally in poorly paid jobs around the country. The Thai government wants these people repatriated, but the United Nations and rights groups say it is too dangerous for the Burmese to return home.

Wave upon wave of Burmese have fled fighting and oppression during the more than four decades their country has been ruled by one military dictatorship after another.

The majority of the refugees are ethnic minorities, who comprise around 40 percent of Burma's population. Many are forced to flee the military government's heavy-handed tactics used to quell decades-long rebellions by ethnic minorities seeking autonomy or independence.

Year after year international bodies and human rights groups cite Burma for a host of abuses detailed in a litany of reports. They include summary executions, rape as a tool of war, the use of child soldiers, forced labor, and forced relocations.

But when Burmese flee to Thailand, they generally continue to live precarious and often dangerous lives in refugee camps for years.

Sunai Phasuk, of the human rights group Asia Forum in Bangkok, says the rule of law in the camps is virtually non-existent. "The authorities will try not to exercise the rule of law over the camp, so it is almost a kind of "Wild West" area in the camp, so it is another set of rules, sometimes it involves torture, it involves beatings to render justice," he says.

Mr. Sunai says Thailand, which has never signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, considers the Burmese to be illegal aliens and non-citizens, not refugees. Although abuses against the Burmese in the camps have received wide publicity during the last two years, Mr. Sunai says more needs to be done. "We have seen a mixed signal during the past two years that increasingly there has been much exposure of abuses, including those committed by Thai officials against refugees, either in the camps or outside the camps," he says. "At the same time, the other side of the coin is that despite the greater awareness of the public of the abuses, there have been almost no prosecution of the perpetrators of those abuses at all."

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, is less critical of Thailand, saying the government's policies are in keeping with accepted conventions - including providing refugees with shelter, medical care, and education.

Kirsten Young, a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok, says the main issue is that the situation in Thailand persists, so that refugees are neither repatriated to Burma, also known as Myanmar, or allowed to start new lives. "UNHCR's main concern with the Burmese refugees is that the situation has been a very protracted one. Most refugees have been in the camps on average for around 15 or 16 years. We're very concerned about the fact that there doesn't seem to be any early solutions in sight for the refugees."

But business tycoon-turned-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, says his government is working to help the refugees return safely. Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow. "So the discussions with the Myanmar authorities, the Myanmar government, is on-going, so we hope that eventually we can come to some kind of agreement that would permit the orderly and safe repatriation of these displaced persons from Myanmar," he says.

The UNHCR's Kirsten Young is doubtful this will be successful anytime soon, since Burma needs to make major changes. "In terms of the conditions inside their country of origin, the basic standard for return would mean that they could return under conditions of safety, security, and dignity. That means that there would be respect for their basic human rights on return. And at present those conditions don't exist in Myanmar," she says.

Most rights groups agree that without drastic political changes in military-ruled Burma, there can be no safe repatriation. And despite the Thai government's desire to send the refugees home, officials may have to begin looking at other means to address the plight of a quarter of a million Burmese with no place to call home.