Thailand begins to return 4,000 Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos

By Tim Johnston
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

BANGKOK -- Thailand on Monday began to deport back to Laos more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers, defying intense pressure from the United Nations, the United States and human rights groups that say the deportees could face persecution upon their return.

After days of preparation, 5,000 troops and officials entered the Hmong camp in Thailand's central Phetchabun province to begin moving the asylum-seekers onto buses that would take them over the border.

Col. Thana Charuwat, the officer in charge of the operation, said that 2,100 of the camp's residents had agreed to leave voluntarily and that the army was trying to persuade the rest. But the Thai government has blocked media and international access to the camp and mobile telephone signals within it, making it difficult to independently confirm that information.

The migrants say they are at risk from persecution by the government of Laos if they return there. Many were soldiers or family members of soldiers -- the "forgotten allies" -- who decades ago fought in a secret army set up by the United States to combat the communist insurgents who eventually took over the country in 1975.

In a statement Monday, the United States urged Thai authorities to suspend the deportation operation, noting that the Thai government had itself deemed many of those being deported as needing protection.

"We deeply regret this serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

The Thai government says the Laos government has given assurances that the returnees will be treated well.

"We have a high-level commitment that all these people will be granted an amnesty," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman. He said that the government also hoped to deport 158 Hmong who have been held for three years in a detention center and that four countries -- Australia, Canada, the United States and the Netherlands -- were interviewing those individuals with a view to giving them permanent residence.

"Our plan is to send them back to Laos and that within a month they should be sent out to the third countries," Panitan said.

Amnesty International said Hmong women and girls who were sent back as a group in 2005 were detained for 18 months; another group of six, which returned at the same time, is unaccounted for.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, although it has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to seek asylum.

-- Financial Times

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