Time for govt to show Karen some heart

Time for govt to show Karen some heart

After struggling for survival on an empty stomach for days, Karen villagers who fled the war atrocities in Myanmar, from an area under the control of the Karen National Union, took shelter along the Salween River. They received some food and medicine, supplied largely by non-profit organisations, temples, Thais, and fellow ethnic people.

Those samaritans who collected donations through their networks delivered the necessities with difficulty. It took them several days to negotiate with local authorities in Mae Hong Son's Mae Sariang district, who initially blocked passage of the items.

Local authorities said they had to get permission from people higher up the chain.

Last week, we were led to believe that humanitarian assistance had reached those in trouble. Pictures in the media of army officers arranging the relief items were almost convincing.

It's estimated that some 2,000 Karen villagers are scattered on the banks of Salween River that borders the countries. They escaped the airstrikes launched late last month by the Myanmar military aimed at the KNU stronghold. Several lost family members, their houses were destroyed.

By showing hesitation and following bureaucratic procedures, local authorities were more concerned with security than providing humanitarian assistance.

Some activists say security officials tend to look at the refugees, or "displaced persons" as the Thai state refers to them, as a threat to border security rather than seekers of aid.

The activists decried attempts by local authorities to push the Karen back to KNU territory.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said there were no push-backs, all those who agreed to return did so voluntarily.

Whatever it is, the activists and samaritans from 62 civic groups and 344 human rights defenders issued an open letter last week demanding the government set up a temporary shelter and provide aid to the refugees.

Signing the petition were human rights activist Angkhana Neelapaijit, Adisorn Kerdmongkol from the Migrant Working Group, Eakpant Pindavanija, director of ‎the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, and Darunee Paisanpanichkul, from Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Law.

They suggested coordination among local authorities, particularly interior and health officials, local human rights organisations, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who have experience in dealing with displaced persons.

"Refugee protection organisations must have the shared roles in making decisions concerning the return of refugees or individuals [escaping war and persecution] to their place of origin. It's not the role of security agencies only," reads the civic groups' statement.

Their petition is understandable. Security agencies have a negative reputation when it comes to human rights issues, including the enforced disappearance of prominent activists and torture of suspected militants, many of whom claimed they had no relation to insurgency operations, in the deep South.

Ethnic people in border areas in the North have shared with me as a journalist some terrible stories, including that they were falsely accused of being drug traders, or physical assaults by security officials. Once I was in a long-established Karen refugee camp, when people told me that some refugees were smuggled into Thailand as forced labour.

The border is known as a "grey zone", where human rights violations and abuse of authority are not unusual. The victims often suffer in silence, as they are marginalised people. They said their villages are controlled by influential and well-connected people, with the power to block the victims' access to outsiders or helping hands.

Moreover, the structure of security agencies is hierarchical and rigid. In most cases, low-ranking officers can't make their own decisions. They must wait for orders from their superiors, who often live outside the conflict zone, and most of the time have little, or no, understanding of the situation, and the sentiment of people in the border areas.

It's important to engage local authorities, civic groups, and other organisations with resources and human rights perspectives, especially on a complex issue relating to refugees, not just border security.

As a country at the frontline of accepting the refugees, Thailand may be reluctant to welcome those in trouble for fear of so-called "pull factors", which could invite a bigger influx. But the situation may not give the government much choice.

If worried about the burden, the government could reduce its role to that of facilitator, and allow non-state agencies to take the lead, soliciting financial and humanitarian assistance. The government should make a quick decision. It's not too difficult to be humane.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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