By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; A15
An estimated 4,200 ethnic Hmong, many of whom fought for the CIA during the Vietnam War or are related to soldiers who worked with the agency, are set to be expelled from Thailand back to Laos, where they could face political persecution.
The State Department said Thursday that it was deeply concerned about the fate of the Hmong, an ethnic minority that battled the communist government of Laos for years with U.S. support.
The Thai military had dispatched more than 30 trucks Thursday evening to a refugee camp in central Thailand containing about 4,000 Hmong and had shut off satellite and cellphone service from the camp, according to human rights officials. The Thai military was also thought to be preparing to expel an additional 158 Hmong from a camp near the border with Laos, even though members of that group have been granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The forced resettlement, which the Thai government had announced would take place before the end of this year, would mark the second such repatriation of refugees in Southeast Asia in a week. On Saturday, Cambodia sent 20 Uighur refugees back to China for certain punishment because of their links to violent protests over the summer in northwestern China.
The Obama administration sent Eric Schwartz, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, to Thailand this week to present senior Thai officials, including military officers, with a letter committing the United States and other Western countries, such as the Netherlands and Australia, to resettle any Hmong who are deemed to be refugees. As a legacy of the Vietnam War, the United States has accepted 150,000 Hmong.
Despite Schwartz's entreaties, all indications were that Thailand had decided to go ahead with its operation.
"The tragedy of this issue is that this is a solvable problem," Schwartz said in an interview. "We've got the resources; we've got the commitment to get into those camps and work with the Thai to achieve the results the Thai want to achieve."
Thai officials say that if more Hmong are granted refugee status, then more will flood into Thailand. At the same time, Thailand is seeking warmer ties with Laos as it deals with a tense standoff with another neighbor, Cambodia.
Schwartz said the imminent expulsion of the Hmong, along with this week's repatriation of the Uighurs, highlighted concerns about Southeast Asia's commitment to protecting refugees.
"We're concerned about the entire regime of protection breaking down," Schwartz said.