Thailand firm on returning 4,000 Hmong to Laos

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

BANGKOK — Thailand confirmed Wednesday it will send more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to communist Laos, where they fear persecution, by the year's end -- despite serious international concerns about the move.

The group, held in a camp in Huay Nam Khao in northern Phetchabun province, are seeking political asylum based on claims they face persecution from the Lao regime because they fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.

"Thailand will complete repatriation of the Hmong at Huay Nam Khao within 2009 because that is the government policy as discussed with Laos," said defence ministry spokesman Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng.

The confirmation came despite recent ministerial talks on the issue with Bangkok-based diplomats and a senior US delegation to Thailand.

US Assistant Secretary of State for population, refugees and migration, Eric Schwartz, left the kingdom Wednesday morning after a visit that included a trip to a Hmong camp.

"Part of what he was doing here was talking about the Hmong issue," said US embassy spokeswoman Cynthia Brown.

On Tuesday European diplomats in Bangkok met Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya to voice concerns about the deportation, said Liselott Agerlid, political counsellor at 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 been granted UN refugee status and offered resettlement in Western countries, could be sent back to Laos.

Thailand says the thousands held in Phetchabun are economic migrants and has refused access for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess if any are in fact political refugees.

The UNHCR and diplomats said they understand a number could qualify as refugees and as such should only be returned on a voluntary basis.

Asked about the repatriations on Wednesday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters Thailand would "take law and humanitarian principles into consideration".

"If we look back at repatriations in the past there has been no harsh treatment. There is no fighting or conflict in Laos," he said.

In May when aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) pulled out of a camp in Phetchabun, they said the fleeing Hmong recounted killings, gang rape and malnutrition inflicted by Laotian forces.

MSF accused Thailand of trying to repatriate the group forcibly.

Although Colonel Thanathip said Thailand would not use force to return the remaining Hmong, there were reports Wednesday that the army had significantly boosted troop numbers in Phetchabun overnight.

"They came on about 20 buses and after that more than 29 big trucks. Now there are about 4,000 soldiers," a 35-year-old Hmong man told AFP by mobile phone from within the camp, asking not to be named.

"The people are worried and afraid the military is going to force everyone to go back to Laos," he said.

Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand analyst at Human Rights Watch, said he had also received reports of the troop increase.

"It is worrying that while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to feel international pressure, the army is doing the opposite," he said.


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