To the Thai people, via Cross-border News Agency,
Since 24/01/10 that the Cross-border News Agency started to circulate information relating to the coerced repatriation of Karen refugees in Nong Bua and Usu Tha temporary shelter on the Thai-Burma border to the Thai public, our stories have been discussed more in Thai media. From news and reports being monitored, we found that in fact, the Thai PM and authorities including Thai military have the very same stand with us; that is 'refugees will be allowed in Thailand when there are still threats in their homeland. When the situation is better, they must go back.'
We definitely agreed. We only asked to take refuge in Thailand temporarily. We do not wish to continue living in Thailand when the threats are gone. Our intention is to go back home as soon as possible.
However, we and you may understand or see 'the proper situation that is safe for return' differently. In addition, we may understand the term 'voluntary return' differently from the Thai military that insisted some of us have returned to our homeland voluntarily.
Therefore, we would like to explain a few points via CBNA to Thai decision makers and public as follow;
1. Although the refugees in Nong Bua and Usu Tha came to Thailand at the same time during lMay- June 2009, they are from different villages, with different past and current conditions and situations. Ler Por Hur is in KNU controlled area while others are in DKBA's or in between. A decision from a person in a village regarding the possibility and readiness to return home cannot be interpreted to be decisions of all.
2. It is not the first time for numbers of people in this group to take refuge in Thailand. Every time we came, we went back quickly as soon as possible. The example is in December 2001 when Ler Por Hur was burnt down. We returned to build our new village within one month, when the Burmese and DKBA's army went back. Yet this time the situation is different. Therefore we cannot go back home easily and quickly as in the past.
3. As refugees, we do not wish Thailand to bear the burden alone. We seek for international protection and responsibilities. Currently, assistances are from foreign humanitarian groups, and the UNHCR is ready to perform protection role if the Thai government allow it to do.
Regarding 'safe condition for return'
1. For us, the safe condition is not only when the fighting ends by one party wins, and cannot be measured by the fact that one can stand in the area for a moment and is still alive. Safe condition for return means the conditions that we can go back to live normal lives safely. Our life-threatening danger include land mines, forced labors, forced portering and forced soldiers recruitment including the recruitment of child soldiers,
2. For the LPH villagers who lived close by the KNLA or the army of the KNU, land mine is the most dangerous threat. The Thai military's notice that the villagers must have been familiar living with land mines is partly true, as we have been living in conflict area. But during the fighting in mid 2009, both conflict army have added a lot more land mines around and on the path to LPH,
3. The land mine threat in LPH also affected food security and daily lives. It will be a risk to farm, look for food in the forests, and even look for woods to replace our house and children's bordering house poles, which were pulled out by DKBA in order to sell in Thailand. The Thai military's comment that local people still travel between Thai and Burma side is true, as the Thai-Karen occasionally went to their tobacco garden and find food. However, they went only to some spot being known to be safe for a short time; and this is different from going to live there.
4. For refugees from other villages, land mine is not a big threat. Yet, many of us do not have confidence to go living under control of the DKBA, known to be an alliance of Burmese army. It is true as Thai military's comment, that many of us had lived with DKBA before. Some people want to go home so much that they agree to bear forced labor and plan to flee back to Thailand if it becomes more threatening like forced portering or soldiers,
5. The most serious concern of refugees from these villages is the food scarcity. The refugees did not have a chance to work on their field for the past 7 months of refuge, while their stocks were taken or destroyed, therefore, there will be no food. To receive assistance from Thai side, they must stay in LPH, which is not safe as being mentioned. Moreover, part of the food will probably be taken by DKBA.
6. There is no certain and firm agreement between the KNLA and DKBA to ensure that we can be back safely with dignity. Before this, we lived with the agreement of the local agreement that both side will not harm each other. However, KNLA now might not be able to balance the agreement. Most importantly, we understand that to clear KNLA land mines in LPH without the presence of KNLA would not be possible as no one know where they are.
Regarding the voluntary return.
1. If refugees have to involuntarily return to their homeland, before the proper time, there will not be only losses for us but the fact will contribute to unsustainable return. They will come back to Thailand via other channels. The case of the 1995 forced repatriated Mon refugees who return to be migrant workers in Thailand is a good example,
2. For us, voluntary return must be based on the chance to freely exchanged information, the chance to have choices – although not varied, and the chance to freely decide with no pressure. Right now, those who decided to return did not go voluntarily; but being pressure to 'choose' so,
3. We did not have freedom to receive information about issues of concern. The trip led by Thai soldiers that brought some of us to see only inside LPH village, where houses are but not around them, was not enough to ensure that the place was safe; we had to follow the soldiers who walked only on certain tracks with fear of land mines. Moreover, communication between refugees and outsiders are restricted. For instance, the head villager of .... village that gave information to outsiders consequently was threatened by soldiers until he fled to somewhere else, and there was an incident on February the 5th that the soldiers took away a cellphone of a teacher in Nong Bua,
4. We did not given information that we had choices at all. We were told only that we would not be able to continue to stay. The UNHCR that once came to interview whether we wanted to move to Mae La camp or go home was stop by the Thai soldiers with an explanation that the existing refugee camp was not a choice for us.
5. The villagers felt pressured from being asked everyday when they would go back, by being informed that they had to go back no matter what and that there would be no further food assistance, and on Saturday Feb 13th, by being acknowledged that they would be taken to a far away refugee camp in Umpang district and that they should not repair their roof and toilet because they would have to leave soon. Due to these facts, a number of people agreed to go back home, thinking that it could be better than staying unaccepted. Many went back with a plan to come back to Thailand, and many who have left actually went to stay with relatives in other villages in Thailand.
We would like to thank Thailand that provide us a place fore taking refuge during our hard times. We do not wish the Thai government to treat us specially, but only according to humanitarian basis and the universal principle of voluntary return with safety and dignity. Therefore, we would like to request, as follow;
1. that the Thai government and military to understand the complicated situation as we have explained, and stop all pressures while canceling the name list of those who 'agreed' to return being compiled by Thai soldiers and allow UNHCR freely conduct interview process, with participation of the Thai authorities and which can be openly monitored by Thai civil society and media,
2. that after the interviews were done, let UNHCR, humanitarian NGOs and Thai authorities facilitated the safe return for those who wish to go back home, with proper assistance. The process should be opened for Thai civil society and media monitoring,
3. For those who will definitely return but not now, allow UNHCR and NGOs to facilitate the plan and possible conditions, including timeframe, for return. Before the return, allow them to continue staying in the current place temporarily. The standard of treatment must be equal to the refugees in the camp and there shall be regular assessment of the conditions with participation of refugees and concerned parties,
4. For the refugees who cannot go back home within a short time ;possibly some people from LPH, they should be allowed to live in Mae La refugee camp under administration of MOI.
We are hoping DKBA and KNLA will reach an agreement that benefits the people soon, especially about land mine clearance. We also hope that the Thai people will understand that as long as there are persecutions and civil war in Burma, our return, although voluntarily, might not be fully sustained as the violence might spread back to this area any time.
A group of refugees from Nong Bua and Usu Tha
**** This letter was typed and edited by Tiwa Phromsupa to the Cross Border News Agency. The contents are from her refugee friends who want to communicate to Thai society.