Foundation put in Legal and Financial Bind                          
    

Bangkok Post: Sunday, 24 July, 2005

Foundation put in legal and financial bind

The Hilltribes Foundation of Thailand has been forced to care for a group of Lao Hmong who showed up at their doorstep, writes TUNYA SUKPANICH

Mr. Assawin Willis Bird, president of the Hilltribes Foundation of Thailand in Chiang Mai province, thinks that the rush to close the shelter for Lao Hmong at Tham Krabok in Saraburi province was without proper consideration of those at the shelter who had not been granted asylum in the United States or other third countries. This has led to several problems, he said.

Many of the Hmong at Tham Krabok have ended up in Tambon Khek Noi in Petchabun province, to add to the influx of fresh refugees from Laos there.

A total of 183 Hmong from Tham Krabok also came to reside inside the Foundation compound from January to June this year, causing legal and budget problems, said Viboon Cheuchumphon, a lawyer for the Foundation. All of them belong to a group of Hmong which Thai authorities have promised to grant citizenship (in appreciation for helping the military in its past struggles with communist insurgents) but have not yet received it.

The first group of 41 came to the Foundation in January without first notifying Foundation officials. They were arrested and first charged with illegal entry into Chiang Mai province. The charge was later changed to moving around without permission from the Saraburi governor. Foundation leaders were also charged with unlawfully providing shelter for the illegal immigrants. Both cases are now in the court system.

The second group came in June , also without informing the Foundation. However, having experienced the legal troubles from the first group, the Foundation promptly reported their movement to local authorities.

According to Assawin, this group told Foundation officials that the Special Task Force in Phra Bhutabaht, which is responsible for the Tham Krabok camp, ordered them to come here so as to transfer their house registration to Chiang Mai, which would make them eligible for Thai citizenship.

This highlights an important point. Part of the delay in resolving the situation of those at Tham Krabok who have been promised Thai citizenship is because of confusion over who is eligible, and this is due in large part to the wording of a Cabinet resolution regarding the matter of housing registration.

The resolution states that only those who live in 20 designated provinces, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Tak, would be eligible for citizenship. Saraburi is not included, despite the fact that Tham Krabok is located in Saraburi. If the Hmong would like to have their identification papers of citizenship issued at Saraburi, the Cabinet resolution must be changed.

Some 1,075 of the group who helped the Thai military, with house registration in eligible provinces, have already received citizenship. Another 965 persons have not been granted citizenship, although they have been given legal migrant status, as issued by the Interior Ministry's Department of Administration.

Assawin pointed out that the long process of relocating the Hmong at Tham Krabok was almost completed, and there should be a satisfactory solution for every group.

He said that one reason some are coming to the Foundation for help is that there is a rumour that it has been granted huge financial support from the United States for its work with Hmong people.

"That is a false report. We do not receive financial support from anyone or any organisations and we are in financial difficulties to feed them (the Hmong from Tham Krabok)," said Assawin, adding that they had in the past requested financial support from the Thai authorities, but to no avail.

But since the Foundation is working for hilltribe peoples, they could not turn the Tham Krabok Hmong down, especially as they have no other place to go. Besides, they are not allowed to seek work to feed their families.

"Another urgent problem is that among them are children that need education. The Foundation has to convince local schools to accept them," Assawin pointed out.

It has been proposed that the Foundation be used as a shelter facility pending the permanent resolution of the Lao Hmong issue in Thailand.

However, the proposal has not been submitted for government approval and hence there has been no budget allocation for it.

"I really do not know what is going on now. The situation is confusing and awkward," confessed Assawin.

Bangkok Post: Sunday, 24 July, 2005

LAO MIGRATION CATCHES AUTHORITIES OFF GUARD

The recent influx of thousands Hmong tribespeople from neighbouring Laos into Phetchabun province has once again brought Thailand to a difficult position, writes TUNYA SUKPANICH

Lao Hmong tribespeople pleading for help from Thai authorities and international organisations in their resettlement.

Life in a shelter in Ban Huay Nam Khao in Tambon Khek Noi in Phetchabun.

Thousands of Lao Hmong are living along the roadside.

For years Hmong tribespeople who say they fear for their safety have periodically crossed the border between Thailand and Laos in large numbers. They claim that they are forced to hide out in the wilderness of Laos or be systematically killed or tortured by the Lao military, partly in reprisal for siding with the US military during the Indochina war.

Around 20,000 Laotian Hmong have been sheltered at Tham Krabok Monastery in Saraburi province since the mid seventies. Many of them have been granted asylum in the United States, while others are still waiting.

It has been more than eight months already since the first group of Lao Hmong took shelter at Ban Huay Nam Khao in Tambon Khek Noi in Phetchabun province, and their status remains unclear.

The Thai government is not willing to risk political conflicts with the Laotian government over the issue, and has taken a firm stand on the need for repatriation of the latest group of Hmong border crossers. But the task of pushing back thousands of people across the border is not an easy one. Moreover, some analysts feel that it would not be unlikely for the Lao military to bar their any reentry.

The issue also raises questions of ethics and international law, over United Nations conventions relating to the treatment of refugees. Consequently, Thailand will apparently reluctantly accept the Lao Hmong for now.

Initially Thai authorities made no provisions for their welfare, but now some aid is coming in from local government agencies as well as international aid organisations. Still, most are living along the roadsides in primitive makeshift shelters.

This may have worked to their benefit, however. Even though they face severe hardships along the roadsides, their existence has been exposed and has drawn attention in both national and international circles. When hidden away in shelters, the plight of the Lao Hmong in Thailand has gone largely unnoticed.

As with the majority of their fellow Hmong at Tham Krabok, the first choice of most of the newest refugees would be to resettle in the US if possible. The situation is stagnant since the governments of both Laos and the US have declined to get involved. Lao authorities have expressed disbelief from the beginning that the Hmong in Phetchabun were even from Laos. Yong Chantalangsy, spokesman of the Foreign Ministry of Laos, asked before there were any official talks on the matter between the two governments how 5,000 people could possibly cross the border into Thailand without being reported or arrested. Later during the official talks, the Lao defence minister said that the Hmong in Phetchabun came from Burma and different parts of Thailand.

Meanwhile the US authorities have refused to undertake any new settlement programme for Lao Hmong following completion of the one for the Hmong at Tham Krabok Monastery, which is set for this September.

TIME FOR A CLEAR POLICY

A small group of Lao Hmong arrived at Tambon Khek Noi, which is comprised of 12 villages with a population of 10,000, around November last year. The main reason they headed for Khek Noi is that many of the communities are home to Thai Hmong, so they can communicate with the locals.

After the first group arrived, their followers came rapidly. The authorities were slow in recognising the problem until local villagers in Tambon Khek Noi gave a cry for help.

Vichien Yatravee, a member of Phetchabun Provincial Authority from Khao Kho district, told Perspective that Prachuab Ritthinethikul, kamnan of Tambon Khek Noi, who was worried about the increase of non-native Hmong, reported the situation to the Third Regional Army, which has responsibility for the northern provinces.

The Army said that they should be sheltered at Ban Huay Nam Khao, some 10 kilometres from Tambon Khek Noi, to prevent them from roaming around without any control or supervision. It is notable, however, that there is no strict control of the route in and out of the Ban Huay Nam Khao shelter area; newcomers pour in all the time. Authorities admit that they need time to work out solutions.

There has been a report that some Hmong in the area have been arrested and forced back to Laos. The so-called International Hmong Federation in the US sent a letter to the Thai government and also to local authorities in Phetchabun asking for a halt to any forced repatriation to Laos. The Federation says it is negotiating with the US government and the United Nations to help the refugees.

In the meantime, the Lao Hmong in and around Tambon Khek Noi are living under crowded and unhygienic conditions. This also makes local villagers feel uneasy, fearing a spread of diseases such as diarrhoea and even malaria. The Hmong dwellings are normally located in high areas, where creeks that local villagers depend on for drinking water pass through.

Vichein said that the Hmong should be granted shelter, food and medicine while solutions were being worked out. He added that because the Lao Hmong were regarded as illegal immigrants, local government agencies or welfare organisations have been slow to provide any help. At the same time, local people face difficulties (because of the settlers).

"It is time for a clear policy from the authorities," said Vichein.

At the beginning of July, there was a meeting among local administration bodies. Then came the posters warning that villagers who give shelter to the Lao Hmong would face stiff penalties.

Military and government security agencies such as the National Security Council (NSC) have denied that they gave such an order.

One local village chief in Tambon Khek Noi said that locals feel very uneasy about the presence of Lao Hmong in the area, partly because Thai Hmong villages in Tambon Khek Noi have been under close watch from authorities because certain villagers had allegedly been involved in drug rings.

"We live in psychological trauma, as suspects in crimes we never commit. Now the situation will be even worse with those from Lao and Tham Krabok around, since they have faced similar allegations," said the village chief.

Finally, humanitarian aid offers are beginning to come in from international organisations. A provincial authority said that now is the time for Thai government and international organisations to make their move, and begin negotiations with the US and the Lao governments.

"Responsible government agencies cannot sit on the problem," he said.

POPULATION EXPLOSION

It's easy to see how the number of Lao Hmong could rise so rapidly, from 400 persons late last year to almost 5,000 persons in less than eight months. Thailand, from the northern province of Chiang Rai to northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani , shares some 1,730 kilometres of border with Laos, which includes 1,083 kilometres along the Mekong River. They come from several routes across the border to reach Tambon Khek Noi in Phetchabun province.

Phetchabun is not a border province, but Kamnan Prachuab Ritthinethikul, village chief of Ban Khek Noi, said there are Thai Hmong in Khek Noi who helped the Lao Hmong to settle there. He also said that those who came earlier could easily contact those waiting behind by telephone and make suggestions that they come to the area.

Phetchabun Governor Direk Theungfang once advocated the repatriation of 800 of the first groups arriving in Phetchabun, but the Foreign Ministry disagreed with the proposal.

Governor Direk questioned how the Lao Hmong could get across the border and come down to Phetchabun without being stopped, saying it was a failure of the immigration system at the border checkpoints. He also complained that the government did not allocate a budget for his province to handle the problem.

Besides those coming from Laos, Hmong from Tham Krabok began arriving in the area in April and May (see sidebar story, page one). They were among those who were not accepted by the US government, or those that do not want to go. According Mr. Assawin Willis Hesser Bird, president of the Hilltribes Foundation of Thailand, the Foundation learned of the move of Hmong from Tham Krabok to Tambon Khek Noi from the beginning and reported it to authorities.

A rush to close down the Tham Krabok camp is one reason for the population boom at Tambon Khek Noi, said a source. The camp was officially closed on May 26 this year.

At Tham Krabok Monastery there were not only Lao Hmong waiting for resettlement to the US, but also other groups waiting for Thai citizenship. A sub committee set up in November 2003 classified the Hmong at Tham Krabok into three major groups.

The first group of several thousand were the Hmong who joined the Thai military in several battles against the communists in Thailand. They continue to stay at Tham Krabok waiting for citizenship proceedings and resettlement land.

In the second group were those coming from highland areas of Thailand. It was decided that they would be evacuated back to their place of origin and wait for citizenship proceedings. More than 2,000 persons were sent to their home villages in August last year.

The third and biggest group was comprised of more than 15,000 persons seeking resettlement, almost all in the US.

The resettlement is still in progress but is scheduled to be completed soon. According to official records, a total of 10,492 persons have left for the United States and another 77 persons went to Australia. The remaining 5,301 persons are scheduled to leave by the end of September this year.

However, an estimated 600 Hmong from this group are to be left behind. Among them are those who for some reason have decided not to go, those with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and those who have criminal records.

According to the Senate Subcommittee on Minority Problems, the Internal Security Operations Center (Isoc) plans to send them to highland areas in several provinces in the North.

Hundreds of houses of those who have left to the USA were demolished in the area around Tham Krabok, and those remaining in several communities were moved so that they could stay together. At the same time, the Hmong with Thai citizenship who had come to stay in the camp were forced to move back to their villages.

Wanting to close the Tham Krabok camp as soon as possible, concerned authorities tried to find places to locate everyone. One proposal was that those remaining be moved temporarily to military camps in Lampang and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces. The plan failed because of a strong protest by the locals, and therefore many of the remaining Hmong have ended up at Khek Noi.

The authorities' dilemma over how to deal with the Lao Hmong in Thailand is not likely to go away any time soon. There are reports that at least 20,000 more Lao Hmong are now waiting for a chance to come across the border into Thai territory.