Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Thai PM: Myanmar refugees to be returned when safe

Thanyarat Doksono, Associated Press, Bangkok | Tue, 04/12/2011 8:28 PM | World 

Thailand's prime minister reaffirmed Tuesday his government will send the more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand back home only when their safety is guaranteed.

Other officials had raised the issue of returning the refugees since Myanmar has transitioned from a junta-ruled country to an elected, nominally civilian government.

But Myanmar's government troops are fighting several ethnic rebel roups, and on Tuesday, members of one of the largest ethnic minorities, the Shan, accused Myanmar's army of launching a large-scale and brutal offensive against them.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters Thailand will send the refugees back "when it's safe for them to return" but did not speculate when that might be. He said there would be "constant monitoring and evaluation" of the situation inside Myanmar to see if it would be safe to repatriate the refugees.

He added that he did not discuss the issue during a courtesy call by newly appointed Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who is visiting Bangkok this week.

Non-governmental organizations working at the refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border have expressed concern about the timing of the returns.

"The refugees should be able to go home with safety and dignity and their returns must be voluntary," Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman in Bangkok of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told The Associated Press.

She added the UNHCR should also be able to monitor their welfare after they cross the border. "Steps toward their returns should be prepared carefully and now is not the right time," she said.

A coalition of support groups for Myanmar's Shan ethnic minority issued a statement Tuesday accusing Myanmar's army of breaking a 22-year-old cease-fire with Shan militias by launching attacks in northern Shan State.

The statement, issued by the Shan Women's Action Network, the Shan Human Rights Foundation and other organizations, also accused the army of atrocities against civilians, "including shelling of Buddhist temples, gang-rape and using women as cannon fodder" by making them work as porters and walk in front of combat troops.

It said the army began the offensive March 13, and in three weeks, 65 battles had taken place and more than 3,500 villagers forced to flee their homes.

The state-controlled press, normally the sole voice of the government, has not reported large-scale fighting with the Shan but has reported on tensions with ethnic militias that have refused to bow to demands to integrate their troops into an official national border guard force.

Myanmar's long-standing military junta handed over power to an elected, civilian government last month. But the election late last year was widely denounced as unfair and designed to perpetuate military domination of the government.

Ethnic rebel groups such as the Shan have been seeking greater autonomy for decades.

"Northern Shan State is being plunged into war and new atrocities inflicted on our people. Now is definitely not the time to lift sanctions against the regime," said Kham Harn Fah of the Shan Human Rights Foundation.