NGOs: Thailand Has Sent Back 2,000 Refugees Who Fled Myanmar Air Strikes

Nontarat Phaicharoen, Ronna Nirmala and Marielle Lucenio
Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila
2021-03-30
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NGOs: Thailand Has Sent Back 2,000 Refugees Who Fled Myanmar Air Strikes Karen refugees from Myanmar carrying their belongings are seen at the bank of the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, March 29, 2021.
[Reuters]

Updated at 7:41 a.m. ET on 2021-03-31

Thailand has sent back more than 2,000 ethnic Karen refugees who fled into the country from military air strikes in neighboring Myanmar, non-governmental groups reported Tuesday, as Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said refugees from areas not ravaged by violence should return.

The Thai government said that more than 2,300 of the repatriated refugees had returned voluntarily, stressing that it wouldn’t turn away those fleeing fighting in southeastern Myanmar’s Karen state, where military jets have bombed villages controlled by Karen National Union (KNU) rebels who control large swathes of territory in the borderlands with Thailand.

Starting Monday, Thai authorities had been pushing back the 3,000-odd Karen refugees who started arriving a day before in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, said Pornsuk Kerdsawang, a member of Friends Without Borders Foundation, a Thai NGO.

“From March 29 onward, Thai authorities have been trying to push them back into Myanmar,” Pornsuk told BenarNews.

Since the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, security forces in Myanmar have killed over 500 mostly unarmed anti-coup protestors, including more than 100 this past weekend.

Naw K’Nyaw Paw, secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service that many more people than the figure given by the Thai government had been sent back across the frontier.

“The Thai Army has said the Myanmar army wouldn’t target the Ei Tu Hta IDP camp, and so we must return,” Naw K’Nyaw Paw told RFA, referring to a camp for internally displaced persons in Karen state.

“They said the IDP camp was not hit by the Myanmar Army. But the refugees are too afraid to return and so they just stay in the mountains and nearby jungles. They were forced to return from the other side by boat – batch after batch. More than 2,000 of them.”

Pornsuk from the Thai NGO said the refugees returned to Myanmar in boats across the Salween River.

“There are about 3,000 Karen in Mae Sariang district and more than 80 in Sob Moei District, [and many are] crossing back via boats. Seven injured Karen were also given help in a hospital in Mae Hong Son province.”

According to information provided to media late on Tuesday by Tanee Sangrat, a spokesman for the Thai foreign ministry, 2,897 people from Myanmar had crossed into Mae Hong Son, but 2,352 of them went back to the other side of the border of their own accord, while 545 remained on the Thai side.

“It is Thailand’s policy not to push back anyone fleeing from fighting in Myanmar,” Tanee said. 

“Some have gone back voluntarily as they have depleted their food supplies that they brought from their villages across the border in Myanmar. They often stay a few days until they are convinced that it is safe to return.”

Tanee also confirmed that some of the refugees had been taken to a hospital in Mae Hong Son, but did not say how many.

Refugees ‘all want to go back’

Meanwhile, at least 10,000 people from Karen state have fled their homes and are gathered on the Myanmar side of the border after recent air strikes by the junta, Naw K’Nyaw Paw, of the Karen Women’s Organization, said.

“There are now more than ten thousand refugees in the country [on the Myanmar side] and about three thousand in Thailand. Thousands of them haven’t crossed into Thailand yet, but they are taking refuge on the other side of Thanlwin River which is in Thai territory,” Naw K’Nyaw Paw said.

The Karen National Union (KNU), Myanmar’s oldest ethnic army, and KIC, a Karen news agency, said both corroborated that 10,000 Karen had fled their homes after the military air strikes. But KIC said that 7,000 Karen were gathered at the border.

“There were bombings by the military on March 27 in areas held by KNU in the district of Papun, which is Mutraw district in Karen [state]. There were clashes in the area before that too. The KNU ran over a military post,” Nan Phaw Gae, editor-in-chief of KIC, told RFA.

“Since then, there were refugees running away from the battle zone. But they were not close to the banks of the Thanlwin at that time. It was (KNU) Battalion 5 area. According to information we gathered, there are about 7,000 or so refugees from there. So with the 3,000 who fled to the Thai border, the total number has reached more than 10,000. But not all of them had gone into Thailand yet.”

The Thai government claimed that the Karen refugees who came over the weekend “all want to go back.”

“They just fear air attacks but we talked it over,” Tanee said, adding that the authorities helped “them to get ready [to go back] at their wish,” Tanee, the Thai foreign ministry spokesman said late Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth reiterated that no refugees had been pushed back, but said the authorities had merely spoken to them.

“Some media reported about [the pushback] but, in fact, there were negotiations … We explained to them that if you don’t have any problems in the parts of their country where you live, could you go back first?” Prayuth told reporters.

“If they are fleeing fighting [and] disasters with deaths on the other side … we will have measures to accommodate them and won’t push them back – if they were really in trouble.”

But the Friends Without Borders Foundation said that a video posted on its Facebook page showed an elderly women saying that she and her family were returning to Karen state because Thai authorities told them to.

“The grandmother said, ‘we fled from Myanmar military but are crossing back because they told us to go back. Thai people asked us to go back,’” the text accompanying the video said.

Pornsuk said the refugees from Myanmar had fled a crisis situation and the Thai government should give them shelter.

Meanwhile, the KNU said that fresh military raids on Tuesday left six civilians dead and 11 wounded.

The group also said it was bracing for a major government offensive, as thousands of government troops were on their way to the state, Reuters reported.

Killings in Myanmar ‘unacceptable’

Elsewhere, Indonesia and the Philippines, founding members of the ASEAN bloc, both issued unusually strong statements about the situation in Myanmar after a weekend of mass killings by the junta, in which the military and security forces killed at least 114 people on Saturday alone.

Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi called the killings in Myanmar on March 27 “unacceptable.”

“Indonesia strongly denounces this kind of act. It is unacceptable,” Retno said Tuesday at a joint press briefing in Tokyo with the Japanese foreign minister. She and Indonesia’s defense minister were there for bilateral talks with their Japan counterparts.

“While continuously respecting the non-interference principle since the very beginning, ASEAN offers its assistance to Myanmar. …For Indonesia the safety and wellbeing of the people is paramount. Dialogue should be pursued to bring democracy, peace and stability back in Myanmar,” she said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations grouping. 

Since the Feb. 1 military coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based non-government organization, has documented at least 521 confirmed deaths and more than 2,600 arrests in Myanmar.

The Philippines said it was “profoundly dismayed” at the “excessive and needless” force applied by state forces against unarmed protesters in Myanmar, the foreign office said.

“We reiterate our call for security forces in Myanmar to exercise restraint and desist from resorting to disproportionate force against unarmed citizens,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The Philippines, it said, was committed to supporting Myanmar’s move towards a “fuller democracy” beginning with the immediate release of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi and other democratically elected officials in Myanmar were detained after the coup.

The Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews, contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report gave wrong information on what the Thai government said about the number of people who went back to Myanmar after crossing the border between the two countries.  

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