By SUPALAK GANJANAKHUNDEE
Repatriation of refugees to Myanmar was conducted on a voluntary basis with respect for safe return, the Thai Foreign Ministry said.
Professor Lee was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 2014. She visited Bangladesh and Thailand last month to assess the situation since the government in Nay Pyi Taw denied her access to Myanmar.
In her statement last Thursday in Seoul, she said refugees who had fled from conflicts at home to the Thai border decades ago to live in “so-called temporary” shelters were “unable to enjoy their basic human rights, where they are once again faced with a perilous situation”.
Lee said: “Karen refugees told me that the humanitarian assistance they depend on is declining, while Shan refugees informed me that their aid has been cut by foreign donors entirely.
“This is occurring in a context where people are being encouraged to return home despite feeling that it is premature or unsafe to do so. They are left to choose between empty stomachs on the Thai side of the border and a return to a precarious peace on the Myanmar side, and the risk of being made refugees all over again.”
She added that representatives from different ethnic groups along the Thailand-Myanmar border had expressed their concern that, while the world’s attention is focused on the atrocities in Rakhine state, potential war crimes are being committed in Shan and Kachin States. This was happening “without so much as a murmur of disapproval from the international community”.
Over the Christmas period and into the New Year, clashes between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) and ethnic armed groups occurred in both Shan and Kachin states, resulting in the deaths of civilians and driving thousands of people from their homes, Lee said.
Thailand has sheltered more than 100,000 refugees from Myanmar since the 1980s, when the ethnic conflict in the country erupted. They are now in camps along border provinces including Mae Hong Son, Tak and Kanchanaburi.
In a statement rejecting Lee’s findings, the Thai Foreign Ministry said: “All Myanmar displaced persons have access to shelter, food, education, health services, birth registration and religious practices.
“These facts are well recognised and appreciated by various UN organisations, particularly the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees,” it said.
Outside the refugee camp along the border, millions of migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar live and work. Thai authorities help legalise them under its registration scheme to ensure they receive legal protection and access to basic services, the ministry said.
On the issue of repatriation, it said that Thailand had always adhered to the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced persons from Myanmar.
“The political development and peace process in Myanmar were crucial in making the first voluntary return of 71 Myanmar displaced persons possible in October 2016, and it is also important for the preparation of more voluntary returns in the future.”