Laos allows Western diplomats into Hmong village

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Laotian government allowed UN agencies and top diplomats brief access Friday to a village housing thousands of ethnic Hmong who were expelled from Thailand in December.

Lao Hmong hill tribe villagers watch as foreign media and diplomats visit the village of Phongkham in Bolikhamsai province where some 3,000 Lao Hmong were resettled after recently being deported from Thailand. The Laotian government has allowed UN agencies and top diplomats brief access to a village housing thousands of ethnic Hmong who were expelled from Thailand in December.
In an attempt to quell international concerns about the group, officials led a tightly-controlled trip via helicopter to remote Phonkham village, a newly-built community in central Bolikhamsay province.

Bangkok sparked a global outcry in December when it used troops to forcibly repatriate about 4,500 Hmong from camps in northern Thailand to its communist neighbour.

The group included 158 people recognised as refugees by the United Nations.

Hmong are a Southeast Asian ethnic group who fear persecution for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
Thailand and Laos both said the Hmong were illegal economic immigrants.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was never given access to the vast majority of the Hmong in Thai camps to assess if any were in fact refugees, despite concerns that a significant number would need international protection.
But a UNHCR official was invited to take part in Friday's short visit, along with representatives of the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"We're glad the Laotian government did invite us to go... I think it's a good first step," said UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey. "We would like an opportunity to talk to the people who returned."
The visitors included about 20 Western diplomats including the US ambassador to Laos, European Union delegates, and foreign reporters. They were welcomed to the village by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Phongsavath Boupha.

He said his ministry was pleased about the visit, "so you can experience the real atmosphere of the village".
But for most of the two-hour stay, the delegation was confined to an unfinished village hall, mainly to be briefed about planned infrastructure developments, with no time allocated for one-on-one discussions with the Hmong.

"The returnees are stable and confident in the leadership of the government and our officials in charge," said Bounthan Douangtanya, speaking on behalf of the committee that administers Phonkham.
But as the visit concluded, some Hmong approached the delegation and said they wanted to leave.
US congressmen, US diplomats and the Thai military earlier visited members of the repatriated group, but rights groups and foreign embassies have been seeking better access to ensure the returnees are properly treated.

Diplomats have said there were no reports of mistreatment.

Separately in Bangkok, David Lipman, the head of the European Union delegation to Thailand, reiterated a call for "free and unfettered" access to the resettled Hmong, especially the 158 whom the Netherlands, the US, Canada and Australia have offered to resettle.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya -- who met Friday with Lipman, other Bangkok-based Western diplomats, the IOM and UNHCR -- said he would pursue the envoys' request with Laotian authorities, an EU press release said.


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