Hundreds of Burmese refugees are fleeing to Thailand in a risky bid to escape the Myanmar army, which seized government in a coup de etat on February 1. The Royal Thai Army has set up temporary camps to deal with the massive influx of immigrants, but since Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the immigrants are subject to being arrested and sent back home.
Burmese asylum seekers are joining members of the ethnic Karen group by attempting to take refuge in a hilly border region featuring the Song Kalia River, which separates the 2 countries. The head of the foreign affairs department of the Karen National Union, Padoh Saw Taw Nee, told DW that there are now over 2,000 refugees in the camps by the border.
“Most of them are young people. There are a few doctors; the others are journalists, lawyers, lawmakers and also people who have abandoned the police and military.”
He told DW that troops from Myanmar were trying to enter the camp where civil disobedience movement members were staying. The rebel army initially stopped about 200 soldiers and 8 trucks from entering, but 5 hours later more soldiers arrived, demanding to enter. He says they eventually left without a fight, but says preparations for the worst are being made.
“We made it clear to them that there would be a battle if they came in. We will launch negotiations and meet the Thai authorities, the UN Refugee Agency and the ICRC because the KNU will not be able cope on its own for very long.”
In Thailand, preparations are underway for an influx of refugees from Myanmar. At the Tao Tahn temple in Sangkhlaburi, which is about 300 kilometres (180 miles) northwest of Bangkok, there are stacks of plastic plates and cutlery piling up in the prayer room.
But, the Thai government is trying to stop the flow of refugees by keeping the roughly 2,000 kilometre border with Myanmar closed, as it was shut due to Covid-19 measures. Such moves to keep refugees from entering Thailand has some criticising the government for not helping its neighbours who are facing a potentially dangerous situation. Bill Frelick, the refugee and migrants rights director at Human Rights Watch, says Thai authorities should let the refugees come.
“The Thai government should immediately allow all asylum seekers fleeing the violent crackdown in Myanmar access to desperately needed protection.”
Thai authorities announced to the media that football stadiums, schools and other sites had been converted to welcome refugees from Myanmar, but those refugees remain unprotected from authorities arresting them and deporting them. The military government, which took power in a coup in 2014, has said it would change Thailand’s asylum policies, but that has yet to happen.
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