Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Thai senators blast Myanmar refugee relocations


A group of Thai senators has called on the government to stop relocating hundreds of Myanmar political dissidents to "concentration camps" along the Myanmar border, which suffer from disease outbreaks and a lack of water.

The decision to move the refugees -- many of them living in Bangkok -- was made more than a year ago after their high-profile involvement in political activities, including demonstrations at the Myanmar Embassy in the Thai capital.

A total of 1,955 asylum seekers were transferred early this month under the protection of the UN refugee agency to three camps in western provinces after being given a March 31 deadline to register for the relocation at detention centers around Thailand.

The senators urged the government to halt the program during a visit Friday to one of the camps, Tham Hin, in western Ratchaburi province. They visited a second camp in Kanchanaburi later in the day. The purpose of the trip was to inspect the refugees' living conditions.

"This is like a concentration camp," said Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, who led the group of five senators.

Tham Hin and the other camps lack electricity and water pipelines, have poor sanitary conditions and occasionally suffer disease outbreaks, Kraisak and other officials said.

Theradej Posaphan, head of Tham Hin, said the refugees were prohibited from using mobile phones at the camp because authorities did not want them to send news or photographs to outsiders.

Some 410 dissidents were moved to Tham Hin, about 230km west of Bangkok, which is already overcrowded with about 9,000 other Myanmar refugees.

Thailand has hosted tens of thousands of refugees at camps along its western frontier with Myanmar for years. Many fled fighting or repression in neighboring Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military for more than four decades.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government has moved to crack down on political dissidents and rebel groups from neighboring countries who operate from Thailand. Critics say his administration has tried to curry favor with Myanmar's junta in particular.

Myanmar's current regime took power after crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Several western countries have imposed economic sanctions over its dismal human rights record and failure to release opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Kraisak urged the government to stop rounding up dissidents, saying the policy would give Thailand a "bad reputation" in the eyes of the international community.

The UN refugee agency has submitted applications for Myanmar asylum seekers to be resettled in third countries, but the timeframe remains unclear, said Kirsten Young, a UNHCR spokeswoman.

The US has taken more than 1,000 Myanmar asylum seekers for resettlement in the past year and is planning to take more, Ralph Boyce, the US ambassador to Thailand, told reporters recently.

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