Thailand must lend a hand to the Karen
Pictures of Karen people, including children and the elderly, crowded on the banks of Myanmar's Salween River while attempting to flee the country as their communities were targeted by air strikes launched by the Tatmadaw, and taking refuge on Thai soil triggered sympathy among many Thais. Criticism has also been deafening over allegations made by human rights groups that Thai authorities pushed back the Karen into the war zone.
Since last week, some 3,000 people from Myanmar's southeastern Karen state fled to Thailand after the military bombarded areas held by an ethnic armed group, the Karen National Union (KNU). The blitz followed a series of bloody military crackdowns on protesters against a military coup staged by Gen Min Aung Hlaing over two months ago.
The KNU has rendered support to the pro-democracy protesters and offers shelter to those fleeing the military repression amid reports that more than 12,000 unarmed civilians have been displaced by "non-stop bombing and air strikes" from March 27 to 30.
Many Karen people left their homes and hid in the forest, with scarce food and medical supplies. Video clips taken from villagers' mobile phones saw some carrying children and the elderly in their rush to the Salween River, the natural border between Myanmar and Thailand.
But their hopes were dimmed when they encountered barbed wire set up by Thai authorities.
It was reported that Thai border patrol officers told them to return to Myanmar territory. Thai authorities also prohibited the transportation of food and goods across the border.
Tanee Sangrat, spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, last week denied the villagers were pushed back into Myanmar, insisting the Thai government would provide humanitarian aid to them. Some injured villagers were sent to a Thai hospital near the border, he said.
At the same time, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha tried to convince the public that Karen people went back to Myanmar "voluntarily" after negotiations with Thai authorities. "[We] didn't point guns at them, instead, we held hands and offered blessings [for their safety.] This is humanitarian. If the situation worsens, we will solve it," he said.
But what I learned from journalists on the ground is a different story. "Voluntary" is not the word to describe the situation.
Kannikar Petchkaew, a journalist friend of mine, who observed the situation gave a very different account. Here it is: "Indeed, no one pointed guns at the fleeing villagers. But some military officers carried guns while negotiating with villagers, not allowing them to record the conversation on their mobile phones. Thai officers told Karen people that they would get into trouble if they let them cross the border to Thailand. They complained that they were exhausted from working at the border while their families were waiting at home. They asked villagers to cooperate by going back."
Eventually, the villagers had to return to Myanmar soil because they had no other choices, not because they volunteered to do it as our leaders wanted to make us believe.
Myanmar announced at the end of last week a short truce during Songkran. But a new round of bloody fighting between Karen armed groups and Myanmar troops is expected in the following weeks. It is one of the world's longest-running civil wars that began in 1949, resulting in an influx of refugees into Thailand three decades ago.
According to UNHCR, there are some 97,000 refugees in Thailand. Most of them are ethnic people from Myanmar who live in nine camps in four provinces along the Thai-Myanmar border. They depend entirely on aid organisations for food and other basic needs.
Thai leaders may find an excuse not to welcome those fleeing the war as Thailand has yet to sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Technically, there are no refugees in Thailand. They are either illegal migrants or "displaced persons" even though it's a war that made them leave their homes.
It also results in the lack of a national legal framework on refugees that guarantees no inhumane actions toward the refugees -- such as pushing them out of Thai territory or charging them with illegal entry into the country and placing them in detention centres. The same old excuse of Thailand having limited resources to take care of refugees is repeated by Thai authorities when closing the door against these people.
That happened with over a hundred Uighur refugees who were deported back to China in 2015, even though they fled the Chinese government's crackdown on dissidents in the Xinjiang region.
Facing the same fate are Rohingya who escaped ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Many fell victim to a human smuggling network then operated by a senior army officer. Those who were arrested were criminalised as illegal migrants and held in immigration detention centres mainly in Bangkok and southern Thailand for years. Some non-government organisations reported that the detained refugees often had poor physical and mental health because of their loss of freedom and uncertain future.
Along with the lack of commitment to treating refugees humanely, Thai leaders' soft approach to the Myanmar issue is a concern for human rights groups.
Gen Prayut, a former coup maker, has avoided criticising the Myanmar Tatmadaw and the bloody crackdown on protesters. No surprise there.
On March 27, the Thai prime minister sent representatives to the Armed Forces Day military parade in Nay Pyi Taw as the world was condemning the coup and the killings of unarmed demonstrators. Needless to say, he wants to maintain cordial ties with the Myanmar junta. This explains why he is hesitating to help civilians. The premier also stated earlier that he did not want to have an exodus into Thai territory.
It's thought that a military showdown is looming after the truce. Thailand has to prepare.
What about some empathy for these people? Thai leaders must extend help to those in agony, allocating manpower and budget.
These Karen do not demand permanent settlement. What they need is a safe place during a military showdown. Since Thailand hasn't welcomed them, many Karen have gone into hiding in the jungle, and according to Transbordernews.in.th, their food and water supplies run out. Thailand does not have to wait until it ratifies the 1951 Convention to help.
If they have a heart, they will know they must do the right thing.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.