CHIANG MAI — Burmese refugees have criticized the Thai junta’s plan to send them home within the next year, saying they have been left in the dark about the repatriation process and are not yet ready to return.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who leads the Thai junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, said on Monday that Thailand and Burma would work together to repatriate more than 120,000 Burmese refugees who live in camps along the border.
“They can make it happen if they do not consider how our human rights will be affected,” said Naw Day Day Poe, deputy secretary of the Mae La refugee camp, which is the largest Burmese refugee camp in Thailand with about 40,000 residents. “There are still on-and-off conflicts in Burma. It’s not safe yet for the refugees to return home.”
She criticized a lack of transparency in the repatriation process.
“We are like victims. We are not informed about how repatriation will work. They should not repatriate us if the conditions are not right in terms of safety, food and job security for the refugees,” she said.
Prayuth met with his Burmese counterpart Gen. Min Aung Hlaing last week to discuss a timetable for returning the refugees to their homeland. While repatriation is expected to take one year, Thai officials will likely start counting the populations in some camps as early as this week, to verify the nationality and ages of residents, and to ensure that everyone is a registered refugee.
This “verification program” is expected to begin at Mae La Oon camp in Mae Hong Son Province on Thursday or Friday, according to camp residents. Chi Poe, a teacher at the camp, said refugees who are not present during the inspection will be deleted from the list of registered refugees, losing their rights to assistance.
“Every refugee must stay at home during the inspection. If they don’t see a refugee in person, they will delete his or her name,” she said.
Officials from the Bangkok-based Mae Fah Luang Foundation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are working with Thai authorities and other NGOs to conduct interviews in some refugee camps. They say they have identified about 3,000 residents who are not refugees, particularly in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces, according to The Bangkok Post newspaper.
Many of the refugees in Thailand fled from Karen State in southeast Burma, where the Burmese military fought for decades against ethnic armed groups. Since Burma’s quasi-civilian government began signing ceasefire deals with the armed groups in 2012, the refugees have faced increasing pressure to return home.
However, international NGOs and the Thai and Burmese governments have said in the past that repatriation must be voluntary. They have said that returning refugees would require protection from armed attacks and material security, such as land access and a means of livelihood.