Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thai army is muddying the waters over Hmong plight

Effort to dismiss 4,000 as mere illegal aliens flies in face of reality

Thai television channels this weekend have been reporting, quoting unnamed sources, that all of the 4,000 Hmong who face deportation back to Laos are illegal migrants looking for ways to get to the United States by any means possible.

The reality, however, is that they came to Thailand to make their case - that they were being persecuted by the Lao government because they had fought for the US in a secret war three decades ago - in the hope that a third country would take them in and allow them to resettle.

More than three decades after the communists took over in Laos, wave after wave of Hmong continues to cross the border into Thailand.

Some are just seeking a better life outside Laos and others are looking to connect with their families resettled in third countries. Some, say members of the international community, are relatives and descendants of men who fought against the communist Laos on behalf of the Thai military and the US in a secret war in the landlocked country.

Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that the communists took over the country more than 30 years ago, the world has never really resolved the predicament of these people. A post-conflict resolution for the Hmong was never initiated by the stakeholders, mainly Thailand, the US and the Lao government.

One of the sad realities of the Cold War is that it pushed the Hmong all around the world. The Hmong's world is indeed a global one, not just some hilltribe group confined to remote mountaintops as most Thais envision it. And to dismiss the problem as a mere bilateral issue with Laos, as Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has done, is just nonsense.

This weekend's television reports said nothing about the growing concern among the international community, including the UN and the US and European Union governments, about the planned forced repatriation of the Hmong.

Neither did the reports mention the fact that the UN refugee agency has granted 158 Hmong, currently detained in Nong Khai, "People of Concern" status, or the fact that the Thai authorities have obstructed the process of resettlement to a third country of this particular group of people.

Nor did they mention the fact that the Thai Army, during the screening process, has identified 47 families, or about 500 people, as being relatives of men who fought in the secret war against the communists that was financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency with training by the Thai military.

What appears to be lacking is political will from all sides - Laos, Thailand and the US - to come up with a post-conflict resolution for the Hmong. Stakeholders are still held hostage by the Cold War mentality and continue to hold their cards close to their chest. No one wants to acknowledge that there is still a handful of Hmong guerrillas hiding out in the jungle, taking up arms against the government in the belief they are fighting the communists to liberate Laos. Perhaps the idea is to let them be hunted down one by one until they all disappear from the face of the earth.

While officially not acknowledging the presence of the armed Hmong guerrillas, some elements in the Vientiane government believe this rag-tag army is being armed by the Thai military with the support of Hmong living in exile.

But if none of the stakeholders has anything to hide, perhaps they should come together and settle this matter once and for all. They can start by managing the problem collectively in order to classify who were actually descendants of the CIA-backed, Thailand-trained Hmong army - and deal with them accordingly.

For the moment, the screening process is solely conducted by the Thai authorities, thus raising more questions than answers from the international community.

A UN presence would indeed add credibility to the process and therefore doors should be open to them and others internationally, including General Vang Pao, the exiled Hmong leader who has expressed a desire to return to his homeland.

The Thai Army conducting a publicity stunt to dismiss the Hmong as mere illegal aliens wanting to go to the US only fools some of the people. It's funny how the Army has conveniently forgotten that it actually had something to do with the conflict in Laos. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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