Thailand cracks down on Burmese dissidents

November 10, 1999

By Sean Healy

Thai authorities plan to deport up to 3000 Burmese dissidents to third countries, including Australia. All Burmese student dissidents must register for "resettlement" with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) by November 21 or face prosecution as illegal immigrants.

Moves have also been made to deport the 80,000 illegal Burmese workers in Thailand back to Burma.

The crackdown is designed to appease the Burmese military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which has closed the Thai-Burma border in protest at anti-regime activities being conducted by Burmese student dissidents in exile in Thailand.

The SPDC was particularly incensed by the armed occupation of their Bangkok embassy by five Burmese student activists on October 1-2. The regime is also angry that the Thai government allowed the occupiers safe passage to the jungle on the Thai-Burma border.

The occupiers took 89 people hostage and demanded that the regime negotiate with Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy and release all its political prisoners. The occupation ended peacefully, with the release unharmed of all hostages, after 25 hours.

The occupation received much popular sympathy in Thailand. One activist, "Johnny", was favourably interviewed on Thai radio and, upon their release, several hostages backed the Burmese students' cause. Even the Thai interior minister admitted that he considered the activists fighters for democracy rather than terrorists.

In retaliation, the SPDC closed the border on October 4, severely restricting the lucrative cross-border trade in timber, gems and consumer goods and ending Thai's right to fish in Burmese waters.

The regime demanded swift action against the Burmese students. The regime's New Light of Myanmar editorialised: "It is now time to exert some control over the so-called refugee camps ... most of these camps are simply providing shelter to a variety of armed insurgents ... It is time for Thailand ... to stop and think that this could well lead to some adverse effects on bilateral relations."

The Thai government's tune changed almost immediately. On October 6, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said, "The students cannot just come in and get out anytime they want, otherwise our country will be turned into a place for the plotting of criminal schemes". The interior ministry aims to resettle all Burmese student dissidents within three years.

Restrictions were also announced on the freedom of movement of 800 Burmese students staying in the UNHCR's Maneeloy camp east of Bangkok and another 1000 receiving UNHCR assistance in Bangkok. Another 900 to 1000 not in contact with the UNHCR must register with the organisation before November 21. The UNHCR was told by the government to be more "pro-active" in its resettlement program.

Most of the 3000 Burmese students in Thailand are veterans of the 1988 democracy uprising, which was brutally crushed by the military. Others have fled over the border since then. Many have been involved in pro-democracy activity in Thailand, mainly peaceful street protests.

There are also 120,000 other refugees scattered along the 2000-kilometre border, mainly members of the Mon, Karen, Karenni and Shan nationalities persecuted by the regime.

The Thai government has claimed that the resettlement to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries will be voluntary. And according to Assaid, many students "have pledged their full cooperation". Conditions in the camps are poor, with students having little prospects for study or work, so it's no wonder many want to leave.

But student dissident groups have protested against the intimidatory nature of the registration and resettlement and the threats of prosecution. Some have also protested against the UNHCR's willingness to act as police officer. On October 18, students at Maneeloy briefly detained five UNHCR officials when the officials refused to pay some students their 800 baht weekly allowance because they had left the camp to take part in political actions in Bangkok, including a peaceful rally outside the Burmese embassy on September 9.

On November 1, the main dissident group, the All Burma Student Democratic Front, declared that its 600 members living on the border, and a further 100 members in Bangkok, would not register with the UNHCR. ABSDF general secretary Aung Thu Nyein said Thailand was the best place for dissidents to conduct their struggle. "It's close to Burma and there are many Burmese immigrants here", he said.

ABSDF chairperson Naing Aung said, "The ABSDF will not register because we do not want resettlement in third countries. We are fighting for democracy in our homeland."

Meanwhile, in response to concerted international pressure, on November 1 the Burmese regime released British national Rachel Goldwyn. Goldwyn had served two months of a seven-year sentence for singing protest songs in Rangoon's central market.

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