Page 1 of 2 Fallen pawns in US's strategic game
By Brian McCartan
CHIANG MAI - Thailand's recent decision to send back more than 4,000 ethnic
Hmong refugees to neighboring Laos has raised hackles with human-rights groups
and stoked tensions with the United States and United Nations. The forced
repatriation marks a controversial closure to the US Central Intelligence
Agency's Vietnam War era support for the rebel Hmong, who continue in small
numbers to resist the communist-run Lao government.
The Hmong have been a sticking point in normalizing Thai-Laos bilateral
relations, which have gradually improved since the end of the Cold War and a
brief border war fought in 1987-1988. For Thailand, the repatriation removes a
potentially destabilizing factor in its continued internal political battle
between the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and supporters of
premier, Thaksin Shinawatra. Appeals to Thai nationalism have already inflamed
a row with neighboring Cambodia, which Thaksin's operatives have exploited to
their political advantage.
At the same time, the move seemingly puts Thailand at odds with the US, though
Washington may allow the issue to fade into the background as it bids, in its
campaign to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region, to improve
relations with Laos. The US has made overtures on several fronts to woo the
government in Vientiane, including a decision in June to remove the country
from a trade blacklist drawn up against communist nations.
On December 28, the Thai military, under the command of 3rd Army chief
Lieutenant General Thongsak Apirakyothin, deported 4,371 ethnic Hmong from Huay
Nam Khao camp in northern Petchabun province, where many had lived since 2004.
About 5,000 officials, civil volunteers and soldiers carrying shields and
batons rounded up the camp's residents and sent them across the border, where
they were taken to the central Lao province of Bolikhamsai.
Prior to the operation, mobile phone signals in the area were cut and
journalists and non-governmental organization workers were denied entry to the
camp. Another 158 ethnic Hmong who had been held since December 2006 at a Thai
immigration detention center situated at the border province of Nong Khai were
deported later the same day. The group had earlier been recognized by the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as "persons of concern"
due to fears of government reprisals for their past involvement with the Hmong
The detainees were the subject of several critical reports by human-rights
groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which detailed
the abysmal conditions of their detention. The group was allegedly held in two
cramped cells with poor sanitation and little access to sunlight, clean
clothing or mosquito nets. They suggested the poor conditions were a cynical
attempt to coerce the group to return voluntarily to Laos.
There are also as-yet unconfirmed reports that suggest an additional 450 Hmong
living in Thailand's Lopburi and Bangkok provinces will be deported to Laos
later this week. Between 250 and 300 of that group have been designated by the
UNHCR as "persons of concern". The expulsion, observers believe, will be done
on the quiet, since the Lao government announced on January 4 that it
considered the repatriation of Hmong to be complete.
There is long-standing controversy over the Hmongs' status in Thailand. Both
the Thai and Lao governments claim they are mainly economic migrants, an
assessment that some human-rights workers and observers of the Hmong situation
confirm. However, they say, several hundred from the Huay Nam Khao camp, and
certainly the 158 people held in Nong Khai already recognized by the UNHCR,
would be at clear risk of government reprisals if they were repatriated to
The Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) released a report in May that
quoted camp residents who detailed killings, gang-rape and malnutrition as a
result of Lao army counter-insurgency campaigns against Hmong in conflict
areas. The report said many of the Hmong in Huay Nam Khao carried bullet and
shrapnel scars to substantiate their claims. MSF pulled out of the camp in May
in protest against Thai military policies, including the intimidation of camp
residents and restriction of third-party access, that impeded its humanitarian
The mass deportation raises new questions about whether the Thai military or
Abhisit is calling the policy shots. Observers say that last week's operation
was largely a military-run affair, with only token involvement of civilian
officials. Much of the discussion between Laos and Thailand about the refugees
and prior repatriations had been done through military officers, apparently
conducted outside of regular diplomatic channels.
The timing of the forced repatriation, it seems, was significant. Just days
before the surprise move, ministerial-level talks were held between Thai and
Western embassy officials, including a high-level US delegation.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric
Schwartz made a trip to Thailand in mid-December during which he discussed the
Hmong refugee situation and paid a visit to Huay Nam Khao camp. Schwartz also
presented Thai officials and military officers with a letter pledging that the
US and several other Western countries were willing to resettle any Hmong that
were deemed by international organizations as refugees.
European diplomats met with Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya on December 22
to express their concerns about the planned repatriation. Meanwhile, nine US
senators wrote to Abhisit on December 17 to protest the proposed deportation.
In the letter, they decried Thailand's lack of transparency in screening
refugees and urged the government to involve a third party in the process to
ensure it followed international norms. Senator Patrick Leahy brought up the
issue, as well as the plight of the Hmong in Nong Khai, on the senate floor on
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of
Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, but many observers expected the Thais to abide
by customary international laws that oblige governments to refrain from sending
persons back to places where their freedom and security may be at risk on their
return. But the forced repatriation was not entirely unpredictable considering
previous smaller-scale expulsions of Hmong that were carried out in a climate
of intimidation, including instances where camp leaders had been physically
abused by Thai authorities.
The mass expulsion of the Hmong has predictably sparked outrage among Western
governments, the United Nations and international human-rights groups. The New
York-based Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Abhisit on November 20
requesting a halt to efforts to deport the 158 Hmong held in Nong Khai. The
letter asked the Thai government to allow their resettlement in third
countries, including the US, Canada, Netherlands and Australia, that had
previously agreed to accept them.
Fair weather friend
Yet the US has also been singled out for criticism for all but ignoring the
remnants of an ethnic army it helped to create during the Vietnam War era. The
US has criticized the Thai government's decision to deport the Hmong, but
observers of the situation say the response is diplomatically too little, too
Rather than publicly pressing Thailand and Laos for a screening process and
acknowledge that some of the refugees may be former fighters in its Central
Intelligence Agency-backed army, much of America's moves have been done quietly
and seemingly with the aim of not rocking the boat. Past forced repatriations
were greeted largely with silence by the American embassies in both Bangkok and
During an August visit to Huay Nam Khao camp, James Entwistle, deputy chief of
mission at the US Embassy in Bangkok, told assembled refugees that the US had
no plans for a large-scale resettlement, but that it would consider people on a
case-by-case basis through referrals by international humanitarian
organizations, including the UNHCR.
Because the refugees were barred from leaving the camp, few if any were able to
contact the UNHCR. There are also critical questions about the handling of the
Nong Khai detainees. Just before their forced repatriation, the Nong Khai
detainees were visited by officials from the embassies of the US, the
Netherlands, Canada and Australia, who claimed that a resettlement agreement
had already been worked out but that they would have to return to Laos first.
The Hmong refused the offer, but were deported anyway.
That's because the Lao government has been repeatedly accused of discriminating
against Hmong or the families of Hmong connected with the CIA during the
so-called Secret War in Laos that lasted from the 1960s to 1973. During that
conflict, thousands of Hmong fought for the CIA to prevent the country falling
to communism and to help with the rescue of downed US airmen who conducted
secret bombing of the country. The communist takeover in 1975 and a campaign of
recrimination against Hmong who supported the previous government motivated a
mass exodus of tens of thousands of Hmong to neighboring Thailand.
The bulk of the Hmong refugees were either resettled to third countries, most
to the United States, or voluntarily returned to Laos by the late 1990s and the
Thailand-based refugee camps were closed down. A further 15,000 Hmong who had
taken refuge at a Buddhist temple known as Wat Tham Krabok in Saraburi province
were resettled in the US in 2003.