Refugees fleeing across the border from Myanmar will be allowed into Thailand on humanitarian grounds if the violence there escalates, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Tuesday.
He was speaking after the Myanmar army's air strikes against the Karen National Union (KNU) last week sent ethnic Karen civilians fleeing across the border to Thailand.
Many of them, however, just crossed the river back and stayed on the bank, too afraid to go back home.
"Thailand will not turn them away," Gen Prayut said. "When they are in trouble, we will not deny them entry to our country. However, this does not mean we will declare our intention to allow them in with open arms.''
Asked about reports that some refugees were denied entry on the border, Gen Prayut said that it was necessary for authorities to enforce requirements for legal entry.
"If there is a war, that's another scenario. In the event the situation escalates, leading to deaths and injuries, the government will put in place measures to deal with an influx," he said.
"We have years of experience, with nine refugee centres sheltering more than 400,000 refugees,'' Gen Prayut said.
Gen Prayut said the government would send them back when the situation across the border was deemed to be safe.
Thailand already hosts about 100,000 refugees from Myanmar at camps along the border.
Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai said on Tuesday that the situation in Myanmar will be raised at the Asean meeting in Brunei next month.
Mr Don echoed the prime minister's view, saying that Thailand will help refugees from Myanmar temporarily on humanitarian grounds. When the situation there improves, they are supposed to return to their home country, he said.
Mr Don said he urged Myanmar leaders to de-escalate violence in Myanmar and bring the situation under control swiftly.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Tanee Sangrat told the press on Tuesday, "It is Thailand's policy not to push back anyone fleeing from fighting in Myanmar. Some have been allowed back voluntarily as they have depleted their food supplies that they have brought from their villages across the border in Myanmar. They often stay a few days until they are convinced that it is safe to return. These are mostly ethnic Karen."
The influx of refugees started last week after the Myanmar army bombed territory controlled by the KNU. About 3,000 Karen people fled across the border to Thailand.
They crossed the Salween River and were staying at tambon Mae Sam Laep in Sop Moei district of Mae Hong Son province.
The air attacks began after the KNU joined protests against the military coup. KNU fighters also blocked food deliveries to government soldiers in Papun district of Karen state, according to The Irrawaddy.
More than a dozen people were allowed to cross into Mae Sam Lap on Tuesday to receive medical treatment.
According to sources, soldiers from the 36th Ranger Regiment on Monday sent about 500 Karen people across the Salween River back to Myanmar. The soldiers reasoned that the clashes between KNU and Myanmar government troops had already eased.
However, the Karen people, particularly women, children and the elderly, reportedly remained on the Myanmar side of the border along the river on Tuesday for fear that the Myanmar government may renew attacks on their communities, the sources said.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said that security agencies had been instructed to deal with an influx of refugees from across the border.