NGOs and emergency workers not given access to refugees as war of words continue in Bangkok

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Rights groups and emergency medical workers were not being given access to Myanmar refugees fleeing into the country, several sources told Thai Enquirer on Friday.

At least 3,000 Karen refugees have tried to seek refuge in Thailand since last weekend after the Myanmar government stepped up a military offensive against the ethnic armies operating in Shan state.

Many of the refugees were turned back due to unclear policies from Bangkok while those that were sheltered or were allowed to take temporary refuge were not allowed to meet with rights groups and journalists working in the area.

“We were told by the local army commander that we could not meet with the refugees because of concerns about Covid-19,” a NGO worker in Mae Hong Song Province told Thai Enquirer by phone.

“There are many people that have come into the border region traumatized and in an uncertain situation because of the violence. What they need is access to medical care and counseling but so far they have not received that,” she told Thai Enquirer on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal.

The Thai government said that it was providing emergency healthcare to those that need it in accordance with humanitarian principles, according to Tanee Saengrat, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman.

Volunteer medical groups in the border regions confirmed to Thai Enquirer that there have been emergency medical evacuations conducted by the Thai government.

However, the medical groups have also been negotiating with on-the-ground officials about access to other refugees.

“Only serious cases have been evacuated but there definitely should be medical worker access for groups that have spent days fleeing violence,” said the head of a volunteer group of first responders in Chiang Mai. “There can be issues like malnourishment or trauma that requires addressing.

War of words

In Bangkok, opposition parties and human rights groups have questioned the government’s policy on the refugee and the confusion surrounding the government’s official stance.

“What Prayut claims as voluntary return is contradicting to what is happening on the ground,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told Thai Enquirer.

“The Tatmadaw offensive is still continuing in Shan State and it is impossible for a safe return of asylum seekers at the moment,” he said.    

Prayut denied on Tuesday that there was an influx of refugees crossing the border and that the Thai military simply asked for them turn back without the threat of force and that most have done so.

Sunai refuted the claims made by Prayut.

“They didn’t go by their own will,” he said. “Thailand has seriously breached international law that prohibits the retuning of asylum seekers who will face danger,” he said.

He said the asylum seekers were being told to turn back by armed soldiers who have put up barbwires along the border areas to prevent any entry.

“That is not persuasion. Basically, what the military and the Thai PM said is a lie,” he added.

Myanmar ally      

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, said the Prayut’s government support of the military government in Myanmar was damaging Thailand’s international reputation.

“The Move Forward Party would like to condemn the government of General Prayut for supporting the violence and the military that are killing its own people,” Pita said.

He said Thailand was the first country in the world to welcome a representative of the Myanmar Junta into the country. The Thai government was also the first government to send a representative to an official event hosted by the Myanmar government.

Pita said such acts clearly show that the Prayut’s government is supporting the Myanmar junta and he urged for the administration to stop pushing back asylum seekers and work with allies and the UN Refugee Agency to help them instead.

Prayut’s allies, meanwhile, have vocally supported the government’s policies and said that Pita was using the opportunity to gain political favor.

The secretary-general of the PM’s Office Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said on Thursday that Pita’s comments that the premier and the Thai government is taking the side of Myanmar military is creating a conflict between the two countries.

“General Prayut is not on one side or another but he is thinking about the bilateral relationship between the two countries,” he said.

Tipanan Sirichana, the former deputy spokesperson of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, said the Prayut’s government is not supporting the Myanmar military’s use of violence and the killing of its civilians as Pita has claimed.

“The accusation is baseless,” she said.

She said the foreign ministry has already released a statement to ask the Myanmar military to stop using violence and release more political prisoners. 

“[Pita] is using this situation to benefits himself and his group…and he is using the crisis in Myanmar to create more rifts in [Thai] society and he is trying to damage Thailand and destabilizing it,” she said.

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