Refugee problems are rife in Southeast Asia, and Thailand seemed to be bearing the brunt of it with thousands of Laotian and Myanmese overcrowding its refugee camps, some staying for as long as twenty years.
A new phenomenon is arising with North Koreans choosing safe passage through Thailand on to South Korea. Just this week, Thai police have arrested 175 North Korean refugees -136 women and 39 men –for illegal entry. South Korea has since asked for discussions with Thailand, and most of them are likely to be repatriated to South Korea after serving a short jail sentence in Thailand for “illegal entry”.
This does not completely assuage fears of North Korean defectors and refugee organizations that there will be a “closure of the China-Thailand-South Korea route” as Thailand is increasingly swamped by refugees. Do Hee-yoon, president of the Seoul-based Civil Coalition for Human Rights of the Kidnapped and Defectors fromNorth Korea, has noted the phenomenon of Thailand’s popularity as a transit state before the North Koreans arrive at their chosen destination of South Korea.China is also a popular place to defect except that if caught, Chinese authorities are not as lenient –it has an agreement with the North Korean government to deport the refugees.
While conditions of poverty and starvation have caused North Koreans to flee, fighting and persecution by the Myanmese junta has forced thousands of Karen to flee to Thailand. In addition, Thailand is also a place of destination for the Hmong people from Laos who allegedly seek refuge because of political oppression.
Thailand and Laos have now “agreed to cooperate to end the problem of Hmong refugees in Northern Thailand” for the very first time. Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told the Nation, “It's time to solve the Hmong problem. We have no hidden agenda because neither of us caused this migration but we, as well as the Hmong refugees, are the victims of human trafficking.”
Meanwhile, the AFP has reported that “more than 1,700 Karen refugees in Thailand will soon be relocated to the United States and Australia after the US waived a law which deemed them as terrorism supporters… They had previously not been eligible for resettlement in the United States because many of them back the Karen National Union, an armed group fighting the Yangon military junta”.
While this is good news for the refugees, there are fears that fresh offensives in Myanmar will heighten the refugee problem. Earlier persecution this year has caused about 2,000 to flee to Thailand. Already the Shan Herald Agency has noted that “both Thai and Shan sources predict that hostilities are imminent between the Shan State Army (SSA) South and the Burma Army”.
Apparently the Burmese army has utilized Google Earth to mark out SSA bases and installations. There is a toss-up where the army will hit –Loi Taileng (the SSA’s main base opposite Maehongson province) or Loikawwan, sources told the Agency. In addition, fighting is scheduled to break out “between the end of August and the end of September”.
N. Koreans in Thailand Likely to Find Refuge in Seoul (Chosun Ibo, 23 August 2006)
S. Korea consults with Thailand on refugees (Straits Times, 23 August 2006)
Thailand, Laos agree to end refugee problem (The Nation, 22 August 2006)
Thousands of Karen refugees to relocate to US, Australia (AFP, 22 August 2006)
Watchers forecast looming border war (Shan Herald Agency, 18 August 2006)
US official to examine refugee issues in Asia (AFP, 18 August 2006)