BANGKOK - Thailand's military junta says it has reached agreement with neighboring Myanmar to repatriate up to 130,000 refugees who had fled violence and conflict across the border in recent decades. Rights groups and activists say the refugees should only be sent back when security has improved and the domestic economy is stronger.
Thailand's military leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said a joint effort would be made in the repatriation of the more than 100,000 refugees living in camps along the Thai border with Myanmar, some for as long as 30 years.
Prayuth, head of the National Council for Peace and Order, said Thailand and Myanmar - also known as Burma - would facilitate the "safe return" of the refugees in accordance with human rights standards.
The refugees, largely ethnic Karen from Myanmar as well as Karenni and Shan among others, fled past conflicts as the groups battled the central government over claims for greater autonomy. Most groups have reached settlements with the government or ceasefire agreements. But not all feel safe to return.
Rights groups have expressed concern over the refugees' safety and ability to return to former properties that may have been confiscated or heavily land mined.
Activist, Bo Kyi, a campaigner for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar, said security remained fragile in the border regions.
"Sending back refugees to Burma is really dangerous for most of the refugees because Burma did not get peace and we don't know [when] there will be another conflict in Karen state. Burma is not ready [with] job creation for those returning refugees, and then land confiscation also landmine problems are not over yet. Therefore I have great concern," he said.
Thai civilian governments had raised the issue of refugee repatriation in the past. But what little progress had been made was often achieved in the face of international criticism.
Debbie Stothard, spokeswoman for the rights group, Alternative ASEAN Network, said the Thai military has shown resolve to settle the refugee issue since seizing power in May.
"Now I think there's quite a strong fear that this is going to happen especially because the U.N. [United Nations] and international agencies have been working on this. But the situation is still extremely fragile and dangerous. We're actually seeing more people displaced. And if you happen to be a refugee of Muslim background then you are particularly vulnerable," she said.
Since violence erupted two years ago in ethnic Rohingya areas of Myanmar, tensions have risen between Buddhists and Muslims.
Stothard said refugees also feared persecution by the Myanmar military, which, she said, still committed rights abuses with impunity -- a key reason why many people fled in the past.
Refugee monitors, such as Karen Refugee Committee spokesperson Blooming Night Zan, said a lack of detail in the plans was also unsettling. But she said she hoped the repatriation would be done in accordance with international standards.
"As we don't understand the details of the plan this is our concern on it. But then we are still based on the humanitarian understanding and they still keep going on the mercy and the concern to the refugees. But then what I understand is there will be one day the right time that the refugees can return to their home," she said.
Rights groups are calling on the United Nations refugee agency to closely monitor the repatriation program. They say their return may be premature, especially in the face of cuts in aid to Myanmar and the need for more political reforms inside the country.