A group of about 200 Burmese refugees has returned from Thailand to Burma in recent days. They are members of Burma's Shan ethnic minority, and their return is part of efforts by the Thai government to repatriate several hundred Shan, who had fled to Thailand to escape fighting. The Thai military defends the repatriation, saying the violence inside Burma has eased, but human rights groups fear for the safety of the Shan.
Moving ahead of a deadline set by the Thai military, up to 200 Shan have returned to Burma. Under a plan laid down by the Thai government, thousands more Shan refugees will be returning from Thailand to Burma in the near future.
The Shan fled to Thailand to escape attacks by Burmese government troops, as well as attacks by forces of another ethnic minority, the Wa.
The Thai military has defended its decision to repatriate the Shan. A top military official said they were illegal immigrants and a threat to border security.
But the repatriation has raised concerns among human rights and non-government organizations working with the refugees. A member of the Shan Women's Action Network, Feng Noung, said the Thai-Burma border remains tense, and she fears for the safety of those Shan who have just returned.
Feng Noung said, "Well, of course you know the situation is always tense in those areas. ... The military are posted everywhere around that border. I think it's not very safe for those people, even though they went across."
Miss Feng says many of the Shan, because of attacks by Burmese forces, were internally displaced inside Burma, before eventually fleeing into Thailand. Reports by human rights groups estimate there are up to 650-thousand internally displaced people, or IDPs, in eastern Burma alone. Miss Feng says life will be difficult for anyone who returns.
Miss Feng said, "Right now, it is terrible for them. The situation has deteriorated …. unless they can get access to this side, or settle in a safer place, then wandering as a IDP as they did before. Going back to that is going back to the horror situation."
Thai military sources are reported saying the Shan were allowed to stay temporarily, but fighting has ended, and it is now safe for them to be moved back.
But a consultant with Human Rights Watch, Sunai Pasuk, said reports indicate that fighting is still going on: "This year, the dry season offensive hasn't stopped. Reports from the other side of the border indicated that the Burmese and Wa State Army troops continue their operations even until today. So, the claim that the fighting has stopped is not true."
Human Rights Watch issued a report in late May that quoted Thai government sources as saying Burmese troops were burning entire villages in Shan State.
The group estimates that up to 100-thousand Burmese government troops, backed by the United Wa State Army, were carrying out operations against Shan communities. These included executions of young men and the rape of women and girls.
The repatriation of the Shan is expected to be taken up by United Nations special human rights representative, Paulo Sergio Pinherio, who is due to arrive in Thailand next week.
Associates of Mr. Pinherio are this weekend due to meet with non-government organizations in northern Thailand to gain an assessment of the conditions faced by those fleeing the fighting in Burma.