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No hiding place: Myanmar refugees face arrest in Thailand

People fearing violence in Myanmar are now caught between a rock and a hard place

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: April 13, 2021 04:00 AM GMT

Updated: April 13, 2021 05:59 AM GMT

No hiding place: Myanmar refugees face arrest in Thailand

Displaced children shelter in holes dug in the forest in Myanmar's Pupun district near the border with Thailand on April 4 after civilians fleeing airstrikes in their home villages were allegedly pushed back by Thai soldiers to the Myanmar side. (Photo: Anonymous/AFPTV/AFP)

Even as a brutal military crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators carries on unabated in Myanmar, Thai authorities continue to arrest people from Myanmar fleeing violence and economic deprivation.

On April 10 alone,  as many as 59 people from Myanmar, including 27 women and two boys, were arrested by Thai authorities after crossing the border illegally into the central Thai province of Kanchanaburi.

A photograph taken at the site showed the migrants, who were carrying only backpacks, cowering on the ground in a thick bamboo forest where they had been hiding. They were all exhausted and hungry, having gone without food for a while.

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They made for a heart-wrenching sight, but they received scant welcome from local authorities in Thailand. The migrants fleeing Myanmar in search of safety and new jobs were promptly apprehended after a local reported them to police. They were detained and will likely be deported back to Myanmar.

The migrants told Thai authorities that they had been escorted across the border by a guide from Myanmar along a natural path to avoid security checkpoints. They were waiting in the Thai forest for a vehicle to pick them up when they were caught. Their guide managed to flee.

The following day, on April 11, another 13 migrants from Myanmar, including three young children between the ages of two and four, were detained in the same province after police stopped the pickup truck in which they were traveling. The migrants told police that they were heading to a southern Thai province where jobs were waiting for them.

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of migrants from Myanmar have been apprehended under similar circumstances. Despite the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Myanmar, Thai authorities refuse to consider Myanmar citizens fleeing the violence as refugees in need of a haven.

The brutal crackdown by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has seen more than 600 unarmed citizens, including numerous children, shot dead after a group of generals seized power in a coup on Feb. 1. It seems clear that these generals are more than willing to continue slaughtering men, women and children at will so that they can hold onto power.

In the face of this outrage, Thailand’s government has done little to help those fleeing violence inside Myanmar. In an incident that earned Thailand’s military-allied government widespread international condemnation, some NGOs stationed at the border reported in late March that Thai authorities pushed more than 2,000 ethnic Karen people back into Myanmar after they had fled into Thailand to escape the aerial bombardment of their villages in Karen state.

In response, Thai authorities denied that they had pushed the fleeing refugees back across the border, potentially into harm’s way. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who himself seized power in a coup at the head of a junta in May 2014, gave conflicting accounts about the incident.

So, since there is no problem, can’t they just return home for the time being?

“After we asked [the refugees] questions [like] ‘What are your problems in your country?’ [The Karen refugees] said, ‘There’s no problem.’ So, since there is no problem, can’t they just return home for the time being?” Prayut said at a press conference earlier this month.

“We didn’t force them (to return) with guns, we even shook hands and blessed them good luck,” he added.

However, the Thai prime minister has also said that people fleeing Myanmar are welcome in Thailand — sort of.

“We have to take care of them based on humanitarian principles. We have a lot of experience,” Prayut said. “There is no way we will push them back if the fighting is still ongoing. But if there is no fighting now, can’t they return to their homes?”

Make of such statements what you will.

What’s not in question is that over the past few weeks Thai authorities have stepped up measures to detain people crossing over from Myanmar, citing fears that the migrants might spread Covid-19 in Thailand.

The result is that people fearing violence in Myanmar are now caught between a rock and a hard place. Staying in Myanmar could endanger their well-being while crossing into Thailand places them at risk of summary arrest.

To their credit, several Thai opinion formers have called on their country’s government to allow people from Myanmar into Thailand, considering the ongoing military crackdown on civilians inside Thailand’s western neighbor.

“We must be resolute in insisting on putting humanitarian principles first before national interests,” stressed Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent journalist who called on his fellow Thais to “offer a helping hand” to people fleeing violence in Myanmar.

Here is hoping Thai authorities will listen. The signs aren’t encouraging, though.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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