JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – A young woman from Myanmar and her family now live amidst tall grass on a riverbank on the Thai border, trapped in limbo between a country that does not want them and a country that could kill them.
Like thousands of others fleeing escalating violence following a military takeover of Myanmar last February, Hay left his village in neighboring Thailand in search of a non-existent sanctuary. Returning to Myanmar would put her and her family in mortal danger. And yet that is exactly what the Thai authorities – who are wary of endangering their relationship with the ruling army in Myanmar – tell them to do at least once a week, she says.
“When they told us to go back, we cried and explained why we can not go back home,” said Hay, who lives in a thin tent on the Moei River, which separates the two countries. The Associated Press maintains the full name of Hay, along with the full names of other refugees in this article, to protect them from government revenge. “Sometimes we go back to the Myanmar side of the river. But I have not returned to the village at all.
Although international refugee law bans the return of people to countries where their lives could be in danger, Thailand has nevertheless sent thousands of people fleeing the growing violence of the military to Myanmar, according to interviews with refugees, aid organizations and the Thai authorities themselves. It has forced Hay and other Myanmar refugees to compete on both sides of the river as the fighting in their home villages rages and drags on for a while.
“This is a table tennis game,” said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long been a major provider of food, shelter and other support to Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can not keep going back and forth across the border. You have to be somewhere where it is stable ….. And there is absolutely no stability in Myanmar at the moment. ”
Since the Myanmar military took over last year, more than 1,700 people have been killed, more than 13,000 arrested and children, women and men systematically tortured..
Thailand, which has not signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is demanding that Myanmar refugees return voluntarily to their homeland in battle. Thailand also claims to have complied with all international laws prohibiting deportation, which stipulate that people may not be sent back to a country where they could be tortured, punished or harmed.
“As the situation on the Myanmar side of the border improved, the Thai authorities made it easier to return to Myanmar on a voluntary basis,” said Tanee Sangrat, a spokeswoman for the Thai Foreign Ministry. “Thailand remains committed and will continue to maintain its long-standing humanitarian tradition, including the principle of non-denial, in assisting those in need.
Somchai Kitcharoenrungroj, the governor of Thailand’s Tak province, where thousands of Myanmar residents have sought refuge, said many had crossed over illegally when there was no fighting.
“We had to send them back as required by law,” Somchai said. “When they faced the threats and went over here, we never refused to help them. We provided them with all the basic needs according to international human rights law. ”
“For example,” he added, “last week we also found some illegal trips here and sent them back.
More than half a million people have been displaced within Myanmar and 48,000 have fled to neighboring countries since the military took over, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Thai government sources estimate that some 17,000 Myanmar refugees sought refuge in Thailand after the takeover. But only about 2,000 now live on the Thai side of the border, according to the Thai-Myanmar border authorities.
“UNHCR continues to strongly urge that refugees fleeing conflict, general violence and persecution in Myanmar should not be forcibly returned to a place where their lives and liberties could be endangered,” the agency said.
Most of those fleeing clashes between armed groups and ethnic groups along the border have to wade across the rivers that divide the two countries, their property and children in balance on their shoulders. Those arriving in Thailand are not allowed to settle in decades-old refugee camps that span the region and house 90,000 people who left Myanmar years before the coup.
Instead, they have been placed in crowded huts or empty tents made of tarpaulin and bamboo. As soon as there is a break in the fighting, refugees and aid workers say the Thai authorities are sending them back, despite the Myanmar army taking over villages, burning homes and setting off landmines.
“I have seen some of them forced into a car, crossing the river and crossing to the other side,” said Phoe Thingyan, secretary of the Overseas Irrawaddy Association.
In the border regions of Myanmar, armed minorities of ethnic minorities have been fighting the central government for decades in an effort to increase autonomy, with more conflicts after the military coup. Despite a few breaks, witnesses at the Thai border say the fighting there is now the worst it has been in decades.. At times, gunfire, bombers, and fighter jets have been heard from Thailand, and even houses on the Thai side of the river have been shaken by the blasts.
Life along the river is miserable and frightening.
“It’s not far from the war zone,” said Naw Htoo Htoo of the Karen Human Rights Group. “The elderly and children do not feel well in the temporary tents … It is an illness not only due to the weather but also to COVID-19.
In December, 48-year-old Myint fled Karen from the small town of Lay Kay Kaw, near the Thai border, with her husband and three children. Officials in Thailand sent them back. With few options, Myint and her family reunited with about 600 others living near the Myanmar River.
In February, heavy rains flooded their camps and Myint fears that the impending monsoon season will make their miserable conditions even worse.
“I think the refugee camps will be in a lot of trouble,” she said. “We can do nothing but make our tent a bit stronger.
On the Thai side of the river, Hay’s tent offers almost no protection from the scorching sun, mosquitoes and rain.
The family longs for their home and cornfields near Lay Kay Kaw. On December 16, Hay and her husband seized their three-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and ran into gunfire. When they reached the river, the fighting was still so close that they knew they could not be safe on the Myanmar side. And then they trudged through the water to Thailand.
“We want to go back but we do not own a house,” she said.
There are no toilets and no way to make money. Food and other supplies are scarce, but the Thai authorities have refused to allow international organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the refugees.
“The Thai authorities have said they have the resources to act and INGO and the United Nations will not have access,” Thompson told The Border Consortium. “The Thai authorities keep this very low visibility, very simple response.
Most of the aid has come from local Thai communities. Phoe Thingyan, of the Overseas Irrawaddy Association, says his group sent 1,000 boxes of rice to the refugees every morning and evening, but that he had to ask the Thai military for permission to accept donations.
The Thai military does not even want to acknowledge the existence of Myanmar refugees in Thailand because that alone could upset Myanmar’s generals, says Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights expert at the Asian organization Fortify Rights.
“The Thai army is going to control the situation, control the story, because obviously they have a political skin in the game, in what is happening in Myanmar,” he said. “They are very close to the military junta in Myanmar.
Somchai, the governor of Thailand, seemed to hint at this: “When the fighting stopped, they had to go back,” he said of the refugees returning from Thailand. “Otherwise, this could be a sensitive issue for relations between the two countries.
The Thai military declined to comment.
Those who remain in Thailand experience not only physical but also legal limbo, vulnerable to abuse. One Myanmar refugee in Thailand who spoke to the AP said “police cards” – unofficial documents that allow refugees to avoid arrest or deportation – are purchased monthly through intermediaries for an average of 350 Thai baht ($ 10). Cards are marked with a picture or symbol that shows that the holders have paid the last monthly bribe.
Without the cards, refugees are at risk of further harassment or possible arrest by the Thai authorities.
“They will take you to the police station and they will look at your documents, test your urine for drug use,” said the refugee, whose name is kept by the AP for security reasons. “The police scare the people and the cards are the easiest way to avoid them.
Tanee, a spokesman for foreign affairs, said the government had “unequivocally denied” the existence of any blackmail or bribery.
Although 23-year-old Win and his family originally camped on the Thai side of the river, the Thai authorities soon sent them back. The chemistry student now regularly crosses the river through deep water to retrieve food, clothes and other gift items from the Thai side. He then turns around and heads back to his campsite in Myanmar, where he lives with about 300 other refugees, including children and the elderly.
They survive, but just right. What he wants more than anything, he says, is the only thing he can not get.
“I just want to go home,” he says. “I do not want anything else.”
Gelineau reported from Sydney.