The Nation

Hmong should return to Laos on a voluntary basis

IT WAS at the end of a short walk through the Ban Huay Nam Kao refugee camp here that Dr Angela Makate from Malawi got the chance to speak to Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. She immediately invited him inside the clinic operated by Doctors Without Borders (or MSF). They chatted for fifteen minutes about the health situation inside the camp, at which she expressed full satisfaction. "New babies are born every two days," she said with a smile.

Then she asked the foreign minister to facilitate visits by two of her colleagues from France and Japan, who have applied for permission to work in the camp but still without any response. "You will hear from me in two days," Kasit replied. Kasit asked if she had ever visited Laos, since she has dedicated herself to working with the Hmong people. "The situation in Laos has changed for the better; you should see it," he said. Makate said she would like to do so in the near future when she has time. Kasit quickly replied that he would help to arrange the trip for her. He later said it would assist the Lao government if those who are helping the Hmong have the chance to cross the Mekong into Laos. Ban Huay Nam Kao is deep inside a valley in Phetchabun's Khao Koh District. It currently houses a total of 5,494 Hmong. The camp is a few kilometres from Cheknoi, the country's largest Thai-Hmong community. During the 1970s, Thai communist insurgents used the area due to its rugged mountains and inaccessibility. Since 2005, MSF has been providing health and psychological care, food and relief supplies here, as well as water and sanitation. Throughout Monday's visit to Ban Huay Nam Kao, Kasit drove home the point that Laos is very serious about taking back all of the Hmong people in the camp. He told Makate that he has met with the Lao leaders twice and received assurances that all refugees will be resettled by the end of the year. "Once they return, they can go to their homes or to resettlement villages. They can apply directly for resettlement in a third country. There will be no forced repatriation. Any problems, you can tell me; I am meeting them again at least four times this year," he said.Obviously, both sides are aware of headlines related to forced repatriation. MSF and numerous US and international human rights organisations regularly raise concerns that Thailand and Laos are in collusion to push back the Hmong against their will and at their peril without following international norms. They have demanded oversight by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. So far, their demands have not been met. In the absence of international organisations to verify the process, any claim of smooth and voluntary repatriation should be questioned or taken with a grain of salt. In 2007, both countries signed the Thai-Lao Committee on Border Security agreement, which treats Hmong refugees as a bilateral issue and gives power to Thailand to send them back to Laos. From May 2007 until last month, 12 repatriations to Laos were carried out totalling 484 families, comprising 2,057 people. Later this month another 122 families will return. Kasit told reporters at the camp that the turning point came with the visit to the camp on February 19 of Brigadier-General Buasiang Jampapun, the Lao general who has been coordinating the repatriation process with the Thai government. He told the Hmong community of his government's policy to resettle all of them with the incentives of amnesty, free electricity and rice for one year, and a living allowance of Bt1,800 monthly for a year. Buasiang also declared there is no restriction on religious freedom in Laos and the Hmong can apply for passports to visit their families overseas. The Lao general had a lot of persuading to do because, included in the audience, were two long-standing anti-Vientiane groups - the Chao Fah group and the remnants of CIA-backed fighters. The former, 800 strong, has no intention whatsoever of returning to Laos. They prefer a third country or to remain in Thailand. The latter is the country's oldest Hmong community, with 1,100 members, only 57 of whom are former fighters. In addition, the camp also holds around 2,000 Hmong who used to live in the jungle in northern Laos. This group's struggle against the Lao government has been featured often in the media. It is interesting to note that there are nearly 1,000 Hmong Christians and another 400 Hmong in the camp left over from a previous screening process at Tham Krabok camp in May 2005, when more than 14,000 people were resettled in the US and Australia. During this week's trip, the military presence was heavy. Journalists had no access to the briefing on the camp's condition and could not interview the Hmong community. However, at the processing centre at Cavalry Unit 28 in Lomsak District, Kasit was able to speak to Hmong families that have volunteered to go back, and journalists were allowed to take pictures. "They are happy to go home but they want to go shopping at Lomsak before they leave the camp," said Lt Somchai Uttama, Task Force commander at Khao Koh. Fresh from the Asean summit, Kasit told the refugees that Laos is an active member of Asean and a signatory to the Asean Charter."The charter guarantees the respect of human rights. Do not be afraid. By the end of this year, a human rights body will be established. It can protect you," the foreign minister reiterated. He said the Lao government has invited Vientiane-based diplomats and representatives of international organisations to visit two resettlement villages for Hmong returnees. "They were satisfied. The Thai Embassy in Vientiane also regularly monitors their living conditions," he said. At the upcoming General Border Committee meeting later this month, the Thai government will donate Bt1.5 million to build a health centre for Hmong resettled in the two villages. Top of the agenda is the plan to repatriate the remaining Hmong by year-end. Laos will be host of the Southeast Asian Games in December. To meet the objectives, both the Hmong and the international community must be convinced that returnees will not be persecuted and that they can continue their lives with full Lao citizenship. There is a possibility the International Organisation for Migration could be involved in the process in the near future. As the Thai authorities wrestle with a myriad of problems related to illegal immigrants, including the Rohingyas, they understand and are acutely aware that the world community is watching them closely. Any action deemed a violation of human rights, or the Hmong being forced back to Laos, will be instantly exposed globally.

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