Peace and Freedom
January 31, 2007
The most encouraging news since perhaps the military coup that took control of Thailand last September came from the Thai government.
Thailand will not forcibly deport approximately 150 Hmong indigenous people to Laos.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters of his new policy after a group of refugees battled police and soldiers trying to return them to their communist-run homeland.
Thai police fired tear gas into an immigration detention cell earlier this week to try to force out men and boys barricaded inside, Amnesty International said.
Surayud said Bangkok saw the Hmong, an ethnic minority who fought alongside America in the Vietnam War, as illegal immigrants and could prosecute them as such, but would not deport them back to Laos, where rights groups say they face persecution. As illegal immigrants they can be fined or jailed.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975. Ever since, tribal people that sided with the United States have been persecuted by the Communist governments of Vietnam and Laos.
"If they volunteer to return home, they can. If they want to go to a third country and that country wants to take them, we will allow them to go," Surayud told reporters.
Surayud's comments seemed to indicate that he had already received, through diplomatic efforts, agreement from the U.S. and others that he would have support and assisting getting the Hmong to third countries.
Lao government officials arrived in Nong Khai on Tuesday with three buses to repatriate the group, all of them U.N.-recognized refugees due to their fears of persecution by the Loatian government in Vientiane.
Police managed to get around 100 women and children onto the buses before a tense stand-off arose as the remaining men refused to go and barricaded themselves inside a holding cell.
Amnesty said three rounds of tear gas were fired into the cell, even though 20 boys were among those still inside. Surayud did not confirm the use of tear gas.
"These are people who have fled persecution and abuse in their own country," Amnesty said in a statement. "The Thai authorities have a duty to protect them, not to add to their suffering."
Before the confrontation escalated, Bangkok called off the deportation attempt. Our reporter Wantanee confirmed that the Thai government had received assurances from the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands that they would take the refugees.
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