Bangkok says it is ready to let 130,000 refugees return to Myanmar
In an early sign of new warmth between Bangkok and Nay Pyi Taw, up to 130,000 Myanmar refugees in camps on the Thai side of the border may be returned to Myanmar soon.
If the process, which could take up to a year, is successful, it would be a landmark achievement.
Many of the refugees have been in the camps for years and an entire younger generation has been born and raised in them.
For years, it has been considered unsafe for them to return to the conflict zones they have fled in past decades.
In his televised programme last weekend, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, chief of Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said that returning the refugees was one of the issues discussed during his meeting with Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on July 4 in Bangkok.
“Myanmar thanked NCPO for the protection provided to its nationals working in Thailand,” Prayuth said, referring to the registration of illegal migrant workers after the coup in Thailand.
Most of the refugees staying in Thailand are from Myanmar, due to decades of internal conflicts and fighting. Some 130,000 are part of 51.2 million refugees worldwide, according to UNHCR’s latest Global Trends Report released in June. While the situation between Thailand and Myanmar appeared to be quiet enough to pave way for the return home, elsewhere in the world the number of refugees from other nations have been on the rise. Between 2012 and 2013, UNHCR said that the global tally rose by 6 million.
The plan to return refugees is partly the result of an obvious cosiness between the military junta in Thailand, which seized power on May 22, and Myanmar’s military - still the real power with 25 per cent of seats in parliament allocated to military appointees.
The camaraderie between visiting Myanmar armed forces chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and Thai armed forces supreme commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, in Bangkok on July 4 raised eyebrows, not least because the Myanmar general reportedly said the Thai army had done the right thing in seizing power.
The Myanmar army had faced a similar situation in 1988, he said. It is not known if there was any mention of the army’s shooting of hundreds in Yangon demanding democracy in 1988. Then the two generals hugged each other. The image has become a symbol of the meeting of military minds from both sides of the border.
In 1997 for instance, then-Thai premier and former defence minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh made much of being “best friends” with Myanmar at a time when the military-run nation was ostracised by the west.
Today ties are far deeper even than the hug suggested. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s powerful army chief who could also be a contender for the presidency, is the adopted son of General Prem Tinsulanonda, Thailand’s former army chief and president of His Majesty the King’s Privy Council.
The “adoption" is a godfather-godson relationship. General Prem, when he was chief of the Thai army, knew Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s late father.
According to Thai media reports, during a visit to Thailand in 2012, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, 58, asked General Prem to adopt him as his son. The 94-year-old Thai general, who has no children of his own, agreed.
It is General Thanasak who has been helping to fix appointments with General Prem whenever Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visits Thailand.
Relations between the two militaries are nothing new especially along the border, where for years army commanders at the local level have co-existed and made deals with each other, often independent of their central commands and government policies.
But there has also been friction - over narcotics, natural resources, and dealing with the spillover of ethnic conflicts.
The new relationship seems to be deeper, linking military elites of both countries on a personal level.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has met with General Prem thrice since 2012; their most recent meeting was this month, when General Prem had lunch with the visiting general and his 21-person entourage.
Among the array of gifts the ageing General Prem - considered a mentor to generations of Thai army elites - presented to his adopted son was a necktie printed with his own signature.