Updates: Dec. 28, 2009
PHETCHABUN, Thailand – Thailand sent army troops with shields and batons to evict more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers Monday and send them back to Laos despite strong objections from the U.S. and rights groups who fear they will face persecution.
Under tight security, all 4,371 of the Hmong were loaded onto covered military trucks and driven out of the camp by late afternoon toward buses waiting near the Lao border, Thai authorities said. Journalists kept at a distance from the camp could see many children inside the trucks.
Col. Thana Charuwat said Thai troops “didn’t even touch” the Hmong who offered no resistance as they were taken from the camp.
With the eviction under way, the United States called for it to stop.
“The United States strongly urges Thai authorities to suspend this operation,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement, noting that the United Nations and Thailand in the past had deemed that many of the Hmong in this group were “in need of protection because of the threats they might face in Laos.”
The Hmong, an ethnic minority group from Laos’ rugged mountains, helped U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Many Hmong fought under CIA advisers during the so-called “secret war” in Laos before it fell to the communists in 1975.
Since the communist victory, more than 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, are known to have fled to Thailand. Most were either repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries, particularly the United States. Smaller numbers found refuge in France, Australia and Canada.
The Hmong claim they have been persecuted by the Lao government, but Washington has said it has no plans to resettle more of them in the U.S.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, commending the smooth operation Monday, said that Thailand had received “confirmation from the Lao government that these Hmong will have a better life.”
The Thai government claims most of the Hmong are economic migrants who entered the country illegally and have no claims to refugee status. The group was being held at an overcrowded camp in northern Thailand that the government wants to close.
Thana, the Thai army’s coordinator for the operation, denied an allegation of brutality by one human rights group, which said callers from inside the camp had used their mobile phones to report violence and bloodshed.
“There has been no violence and nobody has been injured,” Thana said, noting it was impossible for anyone in the camp to call outside because the military had jammed mobile phone signals.
Thana said 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers were involved in the eviction. He said the troops carried no firearms and that their shields and batons met international standards for dealing with situations in which people are being moved against their will.
“There was no resistance from the repatriated Hmong because we used psychological tactics to talk with them, to assure them that they will have a better life in Laos as the Lao government has confirmed,” he told reporters.
Journalists and independent observers were barred from the camp and were allowed no closer than a press center about 7 miles (12 kilometers) away.
The Hmong were driven out of the camp in military trucks and were then to be put on 110 buses going to the Thai border town of Nong Khai, and then across to Laos, heading to the Paksane district in the central province of Bolikhamsai, Thana said.
Laos Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing rejected international concerns, saying the government has a “humanitarian policy” for resettling the Hmong.
He told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that the group would initially be placed in a temporary shelter and then housed in two “development villages” — in Bolikhamsai province and in Vientiane province — where each family will receive a house and a plot of land that international observers will be welcome to inspect.
New York-based Human Rights Watch on Monday called the deportation “appalling” and a low point for Abhisit’s government.
“As a result of what Thailand has done to the Lao Hmong today, Prime Minister Abhisit sinks Thailand’s record on contempt for human rights and international law to a new low,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai representative for Human Rights Watch.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Grant Peck in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.
Now that the SEA Games are over, Laos face a tough task ahead regarding the 4000 Lao Hmong that currently being held in Thailand. The International Human Rights Group are keeping closes eye on the decisions from Thailand and Laos. Those 4000 folks refuse to go back to Laos fearful for their lives and Thailand wants them out of their soil. The U.S. had already fulfilled their committments and no longer will be accepting anymore Lao Hmong. I think Laos have no choice but accept them back and build a new town for them to relocate to. It is probably will come down to the money, who’s going to pick the tap. I’m pretty sure Laos will not fork out their own money to build a new town, new schools, and creat jobs for those folks.
BANGKOK (AFP) – Rights groups and diplomats have expressed deep concern that Thailand will deport 4,000 ethnic Hmong held in the northeast back to communist Laos, where they fear persecution, by the end of the year.
Thai authorities have reportedly deployed extra troops to Phetchabun province where most of the Hmong are held in camps, fuelling fears that they will fulfil a pact with Laos to expel the group before 2010.
Thailand has also failed to renew an agreement, which expires on December 31, with the only aid group providing assistance at the camps.“It is shocking that the Thai army is now trying to use the Christmas and New Year holidays to push back more than 4,000 Lao Hmong, many of whom have escaped from political persecution, rights abuses and fighting in Laos,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand analyst at Human Rights Watch.
“This is brazen contempt for the most basic principle of refugee law.”The ethnic minority Hmong in Phetchabun are seeking political asylum, claiming they face persecution from the regime in Laos because they fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.
On Tuesday diplomats in Bangkok met Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya to voice their concerns about the imminent deportation of the Hmnong, said Liselott Agerlid from the Swedish embassy, on behalf of the European Union.She said they were “particularly concerned” that another group of 158 Hmong held in Nongkhai province, who have already been screened and granted UN refugee status, could be sent back to Laos.
This group has been offered resettlement in Western nations that Thailand has refused to allow, although large numbers of Hmong have been resettled in the past, notably in the United States.After the meeting Kasit’s secretary, Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, told AFP the repatriation to Laos “is our policy, but how to do it and when will be discussed.”
Thailand says the thousands in Phetchabun are economic migrants, and has refused access for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess if any are in fact refugees according to international criteria.“We understand that the Thai government’s own screening process found a number of people had international protection needs, which means they may well qualify to be refugees,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey.
“We have long maintained no one with a valid international protection claim should be returned to Laos on anything but a voluntary basis.”A Western diplomat in Bangkok told AFP they suspected several hundred would be classified refugees if properly screened, adding that there was a “sense of urgency” in the international community about the deportation.
“We have reports that in the last few weeks there has definitely been an increase in the deployment of troops. Previously we didn’t think that they had the capacity or the readiness to do this.”Aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in May pulled out of a camp in Phetchabun, accusing Thailand of trying to repatriate the group forcibly.
MSF said the Hmongs recounted killings, gang-rape and malnutrition inflicted by Laotian forces, but Laos foreign affairs spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing on Tuesday denied there was any harassment of the minority in Laos.“According to the agreement between the two countries, the 4,000 Hmongs should be sent back to Laos. But we are waiting for the decision of the Thai government,” he added.
The only aid group now active in Phetchabun is the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, supported by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which said their agreement to provide help runs out at the end of December.“We have been seeking arrangements to be made after this month but so far we haven’t received feedback from the government,” said UNICEF Thailand representative Tomoo Hozumi.
“Thailand risks sullying its reputation to allow the army to carry out this immoral and unlawful policy,” he said.