Dozens of refugees in Thailand returning to Myanmar

They were away for more than 30 years and are going home under voluntary programme

Dozens of refugees in Thailand are expected to return to Myanmar today under a voluntary repatriation process for people displaced by decades of fighting between Myanmar's military and ethnic armed groups.

The pilot group is unlikely to be followed immediately by large numbers of returnees, given that conditions remain "unstable" within Myanmar, say human rights groups.

Thailand currently hosts more than 103,000 refugees and displaced people in nine camps along the border in the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi. While various governments have broached the possibility of closing these camps, the idea of returning refugees made the most headway this year after Myanmar's newly elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand.

According to a Thai foreign ministry statement yesterday, 96 refugees who have been in Thailand for more than 30 years are expected to return to Myanmar by today.

"Positive political development and the peace process in Myanmar played a significant role in encouraging the displaced persons to voluntarily return to their homeland," it said. "Thailand and Myanmar thus have been working closely to make the return successful."

The two governments also agreed to discuss how to return the remaining refugees, through a high-level joint working group, it added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is helping the pilot group reintegrate back into their country, says most of the returnees are ethnic Karen and Bamar. Among their intended destinations are Yangon, as well as Kayin and Bago states.

UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan said that the agency, together with the International Organisation for Migration and the World Food Programme, as well as the Myanmar government, will give them aid for food and other reintegration needs.

The UNHCR is "not proactively promoting or organising refugee returns to Myanmar", she stressed.

"It will be at a pace driven by the wishes of the refugees and the prevailing environment to support a safe and dignified voluntary return," she added.

It can facilitate the refugees' return only if the Myanmar government gives the green light, and if there are no significant safety concerns in their area of return, Ms Tan said.

Also, the UNHCR and its partners must be able to access the returnees' destinations to provide follow-up support.

Mr Ko Ko Naing, a senior official from Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlements, told Reuters news agency that Myanmar was ready to receive the returnees.

Since assuming power this year, Ms Suu Kyi has made the peace process her government's top priority, and tried to start a dialogue with ethnic armed groups to craft a lasting peace deal. But fighting continues between the military and groups that were not party to a ceasefire deal reached last year.

In September, fighting in southeastern Kayin state displaced more than 3,000 civilians. Many of the villagers still cannot return, especially since landmines were planted after the fighting, says Mr Saw Way Lay, advocacy coordinator of the Karen Human Rights Group. Clashes were reported as recently as last week.

"The conditions are not stable," he told The Straits Times.

Meanwhile, concern is rising over conditions in Rakhine state after an attack on border posts blamed on Islamists was met with a military crackdown that sent locals fleeing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Dozens of refugees in Thailand returning to Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe