Thailand Begins Forcibly Repatriating Hmong

Thailand is trying to evict some 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers and send them back to Laos despite strong objections from the United States and human rights groups. They fear that the Hmong will face persecution. Thailand is using army troops to move the Hmong to the Lao border.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Thailand today, the army began forcibly moving some 5,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers out of a makeshift camp and sending them back to neighboring Laos. The Hmong sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and many fled Laos in 1975 when the communists took power.

The decision to repatriate these refugees is being called a violation of humanitarian principles by human rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. Doualy Xaykaothao has been following this story for many years and she joins us on the line now.

Doualy, at this hour, what is happening in this northern part of Thailand?

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Thousands of Thai soldiers have been rounding up the Hmong and putting them in trucks and buses where they will eventually go to an immigration center in Nong Khai bordering Laos. It's believed that half of the more than 4,000 Hmong have been taken forcibly so far.

And by forcibly, what we know is the troops apparently are armed with batons and shields, but there's no way to know for sure because the Thai government is doing this operation without any transparency. Reporters and local media are at the base of this refugee camp some 11 kilometers away. And pictures coming out simply show sad-looking Hmong, waving at cameras through the crack of trucks and vehicles.

WERTHEIMER: Who are these people? Why have they been living in camps? This is many years after the end of the Vietnam War.

XAYKAOTHAO: Well, the Hmong are an ethnic hill tribe group living in mountainous regions all over Asia, including China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. But many in this group claim they were guerrilla soldiers in the little-known secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. But some are also simply economic migrants who left Laos to find work in Thailand, so it's a mix. But the Thai government has denied access to refugee and rights groups, so nobody really knows for sure who all these people are.

WERTHEIMER: You have been in some of these camps, haven't you, in the past? Can you tell us something about what they're like?

XAYKAOTHAO: Yes. Unfortunately, Ban Huay Nam Khao has been described as worse than previous Thai refugee camps. This is a fenced-in makeshift community on a mountain in Phetchabun Province with rows of homes, essentially simply built houses with straw used as roofs. People live on dirt floors. Food distribution is difficult because the Thai authorities have refused to allow food distribution by U.N. agencies and local groups in Thailand.

WERTHEIMER: Doualy, critics are saying that Thailand has moved away from international obligations to protect the refugees. Has the Thai government said anything?

XAYKAOTHAO: Well, first of all, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says that the Lao government has assured them that the Hmong will be looked after and that U.N. agencies will be allowed to visit the Hmong. But there are no guarantees at this point that independent agencies have been given any assurance that Laos will treat these returnees well. The Hmong have repeatedly claimed they will be persecuted and threatened by the Lao government if returned to Laos.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea what has happened to the people who have already gone back? Is there any guarantee that the Hmong will be safe when they are returned to Laos?

XAYKAOTHAO: There are no independent agencies that have been given an assurance that Laos will treat these returnees well. The Hmong have repeatedly claimed that they will be persecuted and threatened by the Laos government.

But a foreign ministry spokesman for the Laos government says these are our citizens and we have to take care of them. That they have a humanitarian policy for resettling them home, and that there should be no fears for these concerns.

WERTHEIMER: Doualy, thank you very much.

XAYKAOTHAO: Thanks, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Doualy Xaykaothao, who's based in Seoul, South Korea.

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