Watchdog: Thais' Hmong expulsion could be violent

AP News
Posted: Dec 27, 2009 9:35 AM

Human rights groups warned Sunday that the Thai government's planned expulsion of 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos could turn violent.

The Hmong, an ethnic minority group from Laos' rugged mountains, say they fear political persecution in that country, where many fought on the side of a pro-U.S. Lao government in the 1960s and '70s before the communist takeover of their country in 1975. The group is being held at a camp in northern Thailand that the government wants to close.

Panitan Watanayagorn, a Thai government spokesman, said Bangkok has secured an agreement with Laos to repatriate the group before the end of the year.

Human Rights Watch, one of several rights groups monitoring the situation, said the deportation was expected to begin late Sunday or early Monday, noting that soldiers, police and other security personnel were mobilized near the camp and told to wear body armor. There also were reports that 100 trucks and buses were standing by.

Sunai Phasuk, a Thai representative for the New York-based group, said mobile phone signals inside the camp in Phetchabun province had been jammed so nobody could call out. Rights groups fear the Hmong will resist the deportation, as they have during smaller-scale repatriations.

"It never happens smoothly," Sunai said. "If the Hmong resist it and there is an eruption of violence, the army may react in full force."

The United States and human rights groups have expressed concern about their expulsion, saying some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back.

Laos denies the Hmong are Lao citizens, describing them as Thailand's problem, though Bangkok says Laos has agreed to take this group back. Thai authorities say the group of Hmong in Phetchabun are "economic migrants" who have entered the country illegally and are not legitimate refugees.

The Thai government has sought to quiet international concerns, saying measures will be taken to ensure that human rights are not violated.

"We have assurances from the top level of Laos that these people will be safe and sound," Panitan said.

The U.S. State Department has urged Thailand not to hastily expel the entire group, noting that in the past the Thai government has said many of them are in need of protection. Acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Thursday that to repatriate such people would "imperil the well-being of many individuals" and violate international principles.

Toner said the U.S. had raised the issue many times with Bangkok, most recently this week during the visit of a senior State Department official.