Refugees in Thailand face forced repatriation.

February 15, 2009

These Hmong refugees from the camp at the Tham Krabok monestary in Thailand were permitted to enter the United States in 2003. Now thousands more wait in Thailand hoping the US will once again open a door.

Odoumsouk Village - Nakai District, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

I’m well positioned here to get the first word on the quality of the upcoming Lao rice harvest.  I can get the real skinny on current fishing conditions on the Nam Theun River.  Before just about anyone else in America I’ll know the date that the mango harvest will begin.

But when I return to America and friends inquire about Lao government policies and ask me to explain the nuances of Asian geo-political affairs, by rights I shouldn’t sound off until I’ve read a few back issues of the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor or Foreign Affairs.

We get little news here.  In Vientiane, at some of the better guesthouses, I might get televised reports from the BBC or CNN.  Unfortunately, my budget doesn’t allow me the better guesthouses.  Where I stay the lobby television is perpetually tuned to Thai soap operas.

And Odoumsouk Village is a far cry from Vientiane.  I fiddled around with my short wave radio today and my reward for an hour of tweaking and tuning was a thirty-minute English-language broadcast from a German radio station.  That report told me about affairs in Europe but had no news from Asia.

It isn’t the language barrier alone that cuts me off from Lao economic and political news.  The general public here is equally in the dark because the Lao government, functioning within a single party state, controls all forms of national media and releases scant real news into the conduit.

Case in point: there are exciting events now occurring on the Lao-Thai border, but the only details available here come from sources outside of Laos.  I’m sitting just a few hundred miles from all the action but the electronic and print media here are silent about events.  Here’s what I’ve pieced together from sources on the Internet:

As I write, there are approximately 5,000 ethnic Hmong residing illegally in the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Thailand’s Petchabun Province, just over the border from Laos.  Almost all of these citizens of Laos portray themselves as political refugees fleeing oppression meted upon them in retaliation for their ethnic identity or for their family’s historic cooperation with the American military during the Indochina War.

The Thai government rejects their assertion of flight from either genocide or political oppression and refuses them asylum.  The Thais view the Hmong in Petchabun as economic refugees who desire to better their material lives by migrating to Thailand, perhaps with the ultimate goal of emigrating to the United States.

The number of Hmong now living in Petchabun Province is down significantly from the end of 2007 when more than 8,000 refugees lived a squatter’s existence in the area.  The refugee population has dropped because Thai authorities have forcibly sent hundreds back to Laos. Others, frustrated by lack of encouragement from the United States, grew weary of the stalemate and voluntarily returned to their homeland.

In recent years, Thailand and Laos have set aside old hostilities and have worked to achieve harmonious bilateral relations and to realize the benefits of greater economic integration. Both countries would like to see an end to the constant friction fueled by issues related to Hmong refugees. In January, the Thai government announced plans to repatriate all remaining illegal refugees to Laos and set a date of June 2009 to complete the challenging task.  The Lao government agreed to cooperate in this effort and accepted the negotiated timetable.

The newly announced six-month deadline for returning the Hmong escalates a previously agreed upon repatriation program that the two countries negotiated in May 2007.  That earlier agreement established that Thailand could send new Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos immediately upon their arrival in Thailand. Then, in February 2008, the Thai Foreign Ministry announced that it intended to reduce the existing refugee population by repatriating approximately 200 refugees per month until the last of the refugees were gone.

The current dilemma facing the Thai and Lao governments is the fact that, for the most part, the 5000 Hmong refugees who remain in Thailand are adamant in their refusal to return to Laos.  The Thai government has had to contend with threats of civil disturbance, even riot, within the camp.  There have been credible reports that some desperate holdouts are preparing for mass suicide if the Thai military attempts to forcibly move them across the border.

While most of the current refugees are relatively new arrivals in Thailand, some are actually third-generation refugees born twenty years or more after their parents and grandparents left Laos.

In the early 1990’s the last of the United Nations sanctioned Hmong refugee camps in Thailand were closed and the refugees residing there were given a “last chance” offer to leave Thailand for refuge in the United States, Canada, France, Australia or other countries.  For a variety of reasons some refugees, possibly numbered in the thousands, failed to join that exodus.

Some diehard resisters still harbored dreams of returning to Laos as victors in a protracted military campaign.  Others had heard tales of the  hardships experienced by earlier Hmong emigrants to America and were afraid to make the difficult move themselves.  Still others were prevented from leaving Asia because they, or a family member, had issues such as multiple wives, drug addiction or chronic illness.  (Even the renowned General Vang Pao, military leader of the Hmong, had to first divorce several wives before he could take up residency in America.)

After closure of the official refugee camps, many Hmong who could not or would not leave Thailand avoided deportation to Laos by accepting sanctuary from the abbot of Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand.  Over a ten-year period, as news of this haven spread back to Laos, the number of Hmong living near the temple swelled from an initial population of a few hundred into a mass numbered in the tens of thousands.

In 2003, to help Thailand resolve the ever-growing problem, the United States declared another “last chance” offer for Hmong refugees to enter America.  Once again, the Thai government declared that those who didn’t leave for the west would be forcibly repatriated to Laos.  Subsequently, more than 15,000 Hmong living around the temple compound emigrated to the United States. (As many as 500 refugees came to my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin.)

However, once again there were many who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave.  (Sometimes the desires or needs of a single-family member dictated the decision for an entire, large, extended family.) Refusing to return to Laos, many refugees fled to roadside camps in northern Thailand and for the past six years have lived in squalid conditions there. This core group has been joined by thousands of more recent arrivals from Laos, who hope that America will ultimately break the stalemate by offering yet one more “last chance” offer of emigration.

The Thai government, knowing that comfortable living conditions would spur even more Hmong to migrate, has actively worked to limit humanitarian support from non-government organizations. (Approximately 400,000 ethnic Hmong still reside in Laos. The vast majority have no desire to leave but the Thais fear that unless they stand fast so many would become economic refugees that that the problems along the border would vastly increase and persist for years).

The Lao government has promised that refugees may return without fear of reprisal and, in a surprisingly open, uncharacteristic move, has invited journalists, diplomats and aid workers to tour resettlement villages in Vientiane Province that have been established for returnees. But, long years of rumor, suspicion and hostility (sometimes fueled by Hmong living not in Laos, but abroad) has resulted in a level of distrust so great that few refugees are willing accept Lao assurances of safety.

The next chapter in this saga will be played out over the next six months.  Many observers wonder whether the United States will become more actively involved and perhaps open a relief valve in the form of relaxed immigration rules: yet another “last chance” for ethnic Hmong, to come to America. (Albeit, thirty years and, in some cases, three generations removed from a distant war).

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