By William Corliss
CHIANG MAI - Thai National Security Council Secretary General Tawin Pleansri recently announced a proposal to repatriate over 140,000 refugees living in camps along Thailand's border with Myanmar.
The apparent justification for the proposed push back is that Myanmar's general election last November and the subsequent creation of a cabinet of mostly retired military leaders has led to a legitimate transition to democratic governance after almost five decades of military rule.
Bangkok's proposal, however, is based on the still-unfounded assumption that a cosmetic makeover of Myanmar's leadership corresponds with an improvement in the human rights situation inits border areas and fails to consider several critical concerns.
Despite the establishment of a new "civilian" government, the border communities from which many of the mostly ethnic Karen refugees initially fled and may soon be forced to return remain plagued by serious threats. By any measure, Myanmar's eastern border regions are still in a state of war pitting government forces against armed ethnic insurgent groups.
Myanmar's military continues indiscriminate counter-insurgency operations against ethnic Karen insurgents and recently launched an offensive against the Shan State Army-North, an armed organization in the eastern Shan State that previously negotiated a ceasefire agreement.
Over the past two decades, Myanmar's military government had succeeded in alleviating insurgent threats and instability through a series of ceasefire deals with nearly 20 different armed resistance groups. However, three of the largest insurgent groups, the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the Shan State Army-South, refused to put down their arms and continue to operate along the Myanmar-Thai border.
During the Cold War, Thai security officials quietly supported and in instances armed ethnic insurgent groups situated along its border with Myanmar to create buffer zones from perceived cross-border threats. The demise of the Communist Party of Thailand diminished the main security rationale for maintaining that strategic insulation.
Concomitant with the improvement in Thailand's security environment and growth of its economy has been increasing commercial links with Myanmar. Bilateral economic ties built initially on logging and fish concessions in the late 1980s have evolved into an increasing reliance on Myanmar natural gas imports to fuel the Thai economy. By some estimates, over 30% of Thailand's energy supplies now come from Myanmar.
Those commercial linkages will soon intensify. Thai construction firm Italian-Thai Development Pcl recently signed a reported US$8 billion contract with the Myanmar government to invest in the Dawei port project in southern Myanmar. The trade-promoting megaproject has been touted as a future growth engine for Myanmar and will create further incentives for Thailand to prioritize economic interests over humanitarian commitments.
It is significant that Myanmar's "democratic" transition has side-stepped ethnic minority groups' autonomy aspirations. Instead, the Myanmar military continues its decades old counter-insurgency operations in ethnic areas which pose serious threats to livelihoods. These include the forced relocation, conscription, illegal taxation and indiscriminate shelling of civilians, according to rights groups.
Repatriated refugees would not only face the dangers of being caught in the crossfire of an ongoing armed conflict. They would also be subjected to systematic abuses from the military ranging from forced portering to their declaration of free fire zones in civilian inhabited areas.
Returnees would also risk life and limb by returning to areas strewn with land mines by both the military and insurgent groups. A 2009 report by the non-government organization Landmine Monitor identified 721 landmine casualties in Myanmar in 2008. The report indicated that the government has not yet developed an assistance program for landmine survivors.
Given this environment of impunity, any attempt at safe and successful resettlement would amount to a fool's errand. Refugees forced to return to a war zone in Myanmar will inevitably return to Thailand as refugees again. On last November's election day, over 20,000 civilians crossed into Thailand to escape fighting around the border town of Myawaddy. Thousands more have crossed the border since.
A premature large-scale push back of refugees coupled with plans to close existing camps would undermine the sizable investment made by Thailand and international donors in establishing mechanisms for refugee assistance and regulation. Repatriation in tandem with the dismantlement of these mechanisms would be costly and counterproductive in that a new system for humanitarian assistance would need to be reestablished once the refugees returned, as they inevitably would.
At the same time, a government-led involuntary push back would elicit harsh condemnation from international rights groups and jeopardize economic and strategic relations with Western countries that put a premium on human rights issues in their annual country reviews. Last year's forced resettlement of over 4,000 Hmong refugees to Laos resulted in calls by US Congress members to consider blocking Thai military personnel from participating in the annual US-sponsored Cobra Gold joint military exercises.
A similar move against over 140,000 refugees from Myanmar would likely provoke an even stronger outcry and undermine further Thailand's standing in the international community. That would include sharp scrutiny of Thailand's current role as chair of the United Nation's Human Rights Council and raise wider questions about the country's overall democratic direction. Influential advocacy groups in the US, meanwhile, would mobilize their considerable bipartisan support in congress to call for punitive measures against forced repatriation.
For over three decades, Thailand has graciously provided a safe haven for refugees who have fled conflicts in Indochina and the ongoing civil war in Myanmar. But the current policy push for resettlement of Myanmar's refugees will prove to be a false dawn as long as pervasive insecurity exists in its border regions. While Thai leaders may reap improved relations with Myanmar, any short-term economic benefits gained from repatriation would pale in comparison to the long-term diplomatic and humanitarian costs.
William Corliss, a pseudonym, has over a decade of experience researching Myanmar-Thai relations.
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