Situation of Refugees

 

 

"Asked how the [Halockhani] refugees would get enough drinking water, which has had to be trucked in regularly, the Sangkhlaburi [Thailand] District Officer, Kamol Rangsiyanun replied: 'They can drink rain water. "' 

— The Nation (Bangkok newspaper) 19 August 1994, reporting on the situation of Burmese refugees after Thai authorities cut off all food and aid to their make-shift camp in Thailand

 

The Refugee situation in Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh – and spread throughout the world through Burmese diaspora – is not a short-term problem. It will not be simply solved “when the fighting stops”. As long as the overall socio-political crisis is not solved inside Burma, refugees of all nationalities will continue to stream across the borders in search of freedom and stability. This is evidenced not only in the case of a quarter of a million Rohingya along the Bangladeshi border, but also can be witnessed in the current SLORC offensives against Karen-controlled areas along the Thai border. Especially, the vast abuses by the Tatmadaw could be seen in the attack on Halockhani refugee camp, which sent 6,000 refugees back across the Thai border. What Halockhani also clearly showed, is how refugees are treated by neighbouring countries. The plight of refugees, then, does not only rest with Burma, and no longer can this said to be an “internal affair”. No matter when the refugees will be sent back, Burmese citizens will be abused under the SLORC regime and continue to cross the Burma’s borders in pursuit of peace and their inherent rights as human beings.

 

 LOOK EAST

 

The Thai government is not a signatory on the UN protocols on Refugees and does not recognise Burmese asylum seekers in Thailand. Due to the constraints imposed upon it, The United Nations High Commission on Refugees can grant financial assistance and protection to only a very small fraction of those claiming political asylum. However, this too was recently suspended to help force Burmese students and other political dissidents into the "Safe Camp" where they are reportedly awaiting resettlement offers. What follows below is a short summary of the sequence of events for Burmese asylum seekers following their arrest in Thailand:

 

Asylum seekers are arrested by police, immigration police, soldiers or other officers belonging to the Thai security network at checkpoints, students' homes, work and public places under the immigration act for being illegal immigrants. Asylum seekers are often released at this point if they are able to pay a bribe (sometimes as low as 100 baht in Mae Sod and as high as several thousand baht in Bangkok). If unable to pay their way out, asylum seekers are detained at the local police station or prison (if arrested by police), or taken directly to the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC).

 

Asylum seekers who are arrested in Bangkok or Kanchanaburi, are often transferred to the IDCs in these cities after several days of detention in local police stations or prisons. After up to 10 days in detention, asylum seekers are sent to the court that is nearest to the place of their arrest. Those who carry no documents are simply tried on the charge of illegal immigration and are fined 2,800 baht in lieu of 40 days detention at the IDC by some courts or 4,900 baht in lieu of 70 days detention at the IDC by other courts. The sentence depends on the court they attend (some courts automatically give 40 day sentences while others automatically give 70 day sentences) and whether or not this was the first time they have been charged.

 


When over-loaded with people, the Bangkok IDC holds over 1,000 people in 6 tiny rooms. At times there is not enough space for all of the detainees to sleep so sleeping times are roistered and people who are not sleeping may be required to stand. Detainees must pay exorbitant fees for such privileges as using the phone or spending brief periods away from the overcrowded conditions.

 

There have been reports of women being lured or ordered out of their cells by prison guards in both Bangkok and Kanchanaburi and raped. There have also been reports that the Bangkok IDC is a place from which women are being trafficked for prostitution, both in Thailand and abroad.

 

Males are often beaten at these detention centres. Any money and valuables owned by the detainees on their arrival is usually taken from them by either prison officers or by room leadersother detainees who are placed in charge of cells so that the prison officers don't have to directly involve themselves in the extortion and beatings which take place.

 

Since the first week of March, Thai police and immigration officers have hunted illegal Burmese in Ranong, and 30-40 Burmese were arrested daily. At 7:00 a.m., nobody dared to go shopping Ranong as immigration and police in civilian dress raid and arrest the illegal Burmese. Most of the women who are on the way and selling groceries were also arrested. Immigration and police arrested Burmese, jerked their hair, beat them and put into detention. Some got injuries due to beatings.

 

Burmese asylum seekers are deported to the border if they have no legal passport or to Rangoon if they do, (i.e. if they were arrested for overstaying their visas or having false visas). They must pay 200 baht for travel from the Bangkok IDC to Kanchanaburi IDC, or to other border deportation sites. Many students are forced to stay in detention for periods beyond their sentences because they cannot pay their transport costs. Deportees are sent to one of the following border towns depending on which is closest to their home in Burma-Mae Sai (Chiang Rai province), Mae Sod (Tak province), Sangkhlaburi (Kanchanaburi province) or Ranong.

 

If sent to Sangkhlaburi, deportees are required to stay an extra one to two weeks in detention at the Kanchanaburi IDC, except if they pay 6,000 baht on their arrival, in which case they are immediately released and part of that money is used to provide transport for their return to Bangkok.

 

For asylum seekers sent to Kanchanaburi, the period spent at the local IDC is often more traumatic then the time spent at the Bangkok IDC. Rape, beatings and extortion at the Kanchanaburi IDC are reported to be more prevalent than at the Bangkok IDC.

 

Although it is the responsibility of the central IDC office in Bangkok to notify the IDC office at Kanchanaburi as to when and where to deport the detainees, it is the Kanchanaburi IDC office that decides when it is the right time (i.e. when there are enough people to fill the truck) to deport the asylum seekers to the border. Thus, the period of detention at Kanchanaburi; like Bangkok, is uncertain but is usually between one to two weeks.

 

Deportees can be deported to the Thai-Burmese border in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are handed over directly to the SLORC. This is the method used in deportations from Mae Sai to Tachilek, Mae Sod to Myawaddy, Ranong to Kawthaung and at Three Pagodas Pass (which straddles the border). Deportees, especially students or people who are suspected of having contact with opposition groups face rape, beatings, detention, and extrajudicial execution in this situation.

 

Sometimes they have simply been dumped at the border, which occurred on numerous occasion during the past year at Bongti and Lawlo (both in the Sangkhlaburi area). There is usually no supervision and people are often left on the road and told to walk. In this situation, women are in extreme danger of being raped and/or being tricked or coerced into prostitution by brothel agents who come to the border for that purpose. Many of the women sent to Sangkhlaburi are from Shan state and countries other than Burma and are thus particularly vulnerable.


In other instances, some of the deportees, especially the Karen are conscripted by local officials at Sangkhlaburi, when they arrive from Kanchanaburi IDC . They are used as unpaid labour on local public works projects. Rape and other forms of physical abuse have been repeatedly reported in such situations. More rarely, they are handed over to refugee and relief officials from the opposition groups (more often the case in the Sangkhlaburi area).

 

Those who want to return to Bangkok from Kanchanaburi can do so for a fee of 2,500 baht. Local and Bangkok businessmen have taken the opportunity to make some money, and have been taking students and other asylum seekers back to pre-arranged jobs in the capitol. These businessmen are sometimes looking for people who will accept low paid and/or dangerous work or prostitutes to feed the domestic and international sex trade.

 

While Thailand has several categories for refugees; they do not recognise any refugees as refugees per se since 1984. This restriction has caused undue hardship to thousands of people who have escaped the military regime. Whether any of them are “economic refugees” does not play a major part; what does this mean? A refugee who comes to Bangkok, is not allowed to be accepted as a refugee and therefore receive UNHCR protection and funding, who must then work in order to survive – is this an “economic refugee”?

 

Obviously, people who leave Burma solely in order to earn money are economic refugees. However, those who leave Burma because of the economic conditions of forced labour, economic mismanagement and threats to their livelihood (such as forced relocation, extortion, their very

 

No screening process of refugees is made by Thai authorities. In most cases, refugees who put up complaints receive longer “holding” sentences in IDC under unbearable conditions. Therefore, refugees are more inclined to state whatever is necessary to remove themselves from this environment, so that they might begin the journey back into Thailand. The idea that refugees are “costing” Thailand money has been proven false by their own government, which has legalised work permits for Burmese along the Thai provinces adjoining to Burma, not to mention the millions of dollars annually contributed by international aid organisations to feed and supply refugees, the amounts being spent locally for local Thai economic benefits. This includes such locally made products as rice and mosquitos nets, etc. The idea that the Burmese only came “to Thailand to eat our rice” is not only erroneous, but the contribution of Burmese has been appreciated by the Government of Thailand.

 

A LOOK WEST

 

Before 1988, no refugees from the Chin State were reported. Following the 1988 popular uprising in the urban centres of Burma, a small number of refugees crossed into India. However, after 1993, the number of refugees began to increase. At present, it is estimated that there are 50,000 Chin refugees in India, mostly in Mizoram State and some in Manipur State. Some Chin refugees are found in the Mizo area of northeast Bangladesh.

 

The refugees situation in India is not as bad as in Thailand. Mizo people and Chins are the same ethnic group and Chin refugees from Burma seem to integrate reasonably well with the local population. Mizoram authorities are quite sympathetic and do not restrict their movements neither within the state nor across the India-Burma border. It seems that 2 camps have been established but most of the refugees don’t settle in camps. Despite this, the Indian government in an apparent appeasement move rounded up approximately 1,000 Chin refugees and deposited them directly into the hands of SLORC, proving the danger for all refugees anywhere. China and SLORC signed an agreement in 1994 to begin repatriating the official refugees in 1995 – without any form of international monitoring.

 


1994’s DARKEST HOUR: HALOCKHANI

 

On 21 July 1994 SLORC troops from IB 62 shocked the worked by attacking a Mon refugee camp at Halockhani. Worst of all for SLORC, it happened just as its representatives were going to attend the annual Foreign Ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok for the first time. This report attempts to describe the attack through the eyes of some of its victims under “Eye-witness Accounts”. What follows is a brief overview of what happened.

 

In 1989-90 Burmese troops attacked and overran Three Pagodas Pass, the main area held by the NMSP along the Thai border. According to MNRC figures, over 12,000 civilians then fled to Thailand to escape the Burmese military. Several Mon refugee camps were set up in Thailand's Sangkhlaburi District.

 

Starting in 1992, as part of its 'constructive engagement' deal with SLORC, the Thai government began a program to intimidate the Mon refugees back into SLORC territory of Burma. They ordered all Mon refugees to move to one site at Loh Loe west of Sangkhlaburi. However, this camp was only allowed to exist for about another year. Then at the beginning of 1994 the Thai authorities ordered the refugees to move to a new site at Halockhani just across on the Burma side of the border northwest of Sangkhlaburi. Although this site is within striking distance of SLORC troops in Three Pagodas Pass, the Thais forced the MNRC to agree to it and the refugees moved.

 

Four to six thousand refugees established a camp with two parts: the main Halockhani camp, on the Burma side just 20 minutes' walk from the last Thai Border Patrol Police checkpoint over a hill that forms the border, and another small section of 120 houses and 500 people called Plat Hon Pai (sometimes also written Blad Don Pai, Baleh Donephai, Palai Tum Pai, or called Kwan Sayal, which is more spacious 45 minutes walk further into Burma).

 

On 20 June 1994 at about midnight, one or two armed SLORC soldiers reportedly approached a rice field hut outside Plat Hon Pai. In fear, the farmer fired a hunting rifle at them, and the next day the body of one soldier was found in the uniform of SLORC IB 62 based at Three Pagodas Pass.

 

A month later on the morning of 21 July, an estimated more than 100 heavily-armed troops from IB 62 arrived without warning in Plat Hon Pai, led by Deputy Bn Comdr Lt Col Ohn Myint. They grabbed almost all the men in the camp and gathered them at the school. Several men, including the section leader, were beaten and tortured while the soldiers demanded the gun of the soldier who was killed a month earlier.

 

At the same time, a contingent of troops took about 50 refugees as a human shield and set off for the main part of Halockhani camp. When they were almost there, they were fired on by Mon soldiers who had rushed to the scene on hearing of the Burmese troops' presence. A short battle followed, during which one SLORC soldier was wounded and many of the refugees managed to escape. The troops then retreated to Plat Hon Pai.

 

They took 6 men as prisoners or hostages, carrying loads and in handcuffs, and took at least 10 other refugees as porters to add to the 100 or more porters from Burma they had initially brought with them. Before they left Plat Hon Pai, soldiers ordered all the women and children out of their houses, went inside to loot the valuables, then burned the houses. Most of the houses in the camp were either totally or partly burned down, and the soldiers deliberately prevented the women from saving any of their belongings.

 

As they left the village, they said they would come back in 3 days and shoot anyone they saw. The troops then set off with the porters and prisoners for several days' march across the mountains to Ye near the Andaman Coast. Along the way several of the refugee porters escaped and others, such as the Plat Hon Pai section leader, were let go in Ye. (IB 61 had left Ye in early July to replace IB 62 at Three Pagodas Pass. When they arrived there, IB 62 took their porters and set off to go back to Ye, attacking Halockhani on the way.)


After the attack all the refugees in Plat Hon Pai and the main part of Halockhani fled across the Thai border and camped around the Thai Border Patrol Police checkpoint, a total of some 6,000 people. There they suffered from the constant rains in little overcrowded bamboo shelters covered with plastic sheets supplied by foreign NGOs. The Thais immediately said the fighting was over and that the refugees must go back, but the refugees heard more fighting in the distance and refused because they were afraid of more attacks.

 

On 25 July the MNRC met with 5 Thai officials including the District Chairman of Sangkhlaburi District and were told that all refugees must return across the border immediately, that Col Tin Kyaing, the commander of SLORC IB 61 based at 3 Pagodas Pass, had promised the Thai authorities not to made any more trouble for the Mon refugees if they returned; and that the Thai government will not allow any Mon refugees to stay on Thai soil. The refugees still refused to go back, but the Thais set a deadline of 10 August for them all to be gone.

 

When that deadline passed the camp gate was closed and no further supplies were allowed in, including doctors from Medicins Sans Frontieres, MNRC representatives, journalists, or visitors of any kind. Representatives of UNHCR, Thai and US delegations of politicians had also been denied entry. A 35-year-old Mon mother with five reportedly died of cerebral malaria because the Thai BPP stopped her en route to the River Kwai Hospital. Malnutrition of children raised especially high, despite refugees’ attempts to keep latrines far away and boil water.

 

Fortunately, the refugees had a stockpile of rice to last most of the rainy season because the camp is almost inaccessible during the rains; however, Thai authorities then began dumping several hundred deportees at the camp every week who must also be fed and treated from the camp supply. These are IDC inmates; illegal immigrants, economic migrants, Burmese student dissidents, refugees and other people from Burma, and occasionally even Nepalese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysians and others. They have been arrested in Thailand, imprisoned, often robbed or raped, and are being “deported' to the refugee camp at Halockhani”. It was only then the Thais seized the rice storehouse, claiming it was on Thai soil.

 

At this rate, the refugees' situation became more desperate every day, without outside aid. Some people argued that the refugees' health situation would be much better if they went back; on the other hand, medical workers who had been in the camp stated that the site on the Thai side would actually be much healthier, if only the Thais would allow the people to set up proper houses, latrines and a good water supply. The health crisis at the camp occurred mainly because this is not being allowed.

 

There are various theories on why the SLORC attacked Halockhani; as revenge for the soldier killed in June, to remind the refugees ‘who is master' on the Burma side of the border, to pressure the NMSP into surrendering to a SLORC “ceasefire” or any combination of these. The end result was that all the refugees returned to their burnt villages, while many of the “deportees” have already found their way back inside of Thailand as a better life confronts them. Truly, Halockhani could be defined by the phrase, “A human rights nightmare turned into a major humanitarian disaster.”

 

[see also under “Forced Repatriation” and “Eye-witness Accounts”, interview 1-2, 4-6, 8-12, 24, 28-29, 32-33, 35-36, 102]