Written by U Ne Oo on 1997-08-22

A test case for humanitarianism vs. self-interests in Thailand

Serious concerns about protection of our refugees in Thailand arose as we heard distressing news of someng news of some Rohingya refugee childrens died in the protests against forced repatriations by Bangladeshi Government. Such case certainly shows the refugees as vulnerable beings in most physical and emotional circumstances - which warrant a renewed call for the UNHCR protection of our refugees in Thailand. A much further alarming news is the recent economic difficulties in Thailand that may ultimately affect the displaced population.

In previous years, several appeals have been made to the Royal Thai Government in connection with ion with the protection of Burmese refugees. We, however, have not received any official position by the RTG for not allowing the UNHCR to handle the situation. There have been varying interpretations about why the RTG is reluctant to give UN protection to the refugees:(1) the RTG have had bad experiences in the resettlement-driven refugee policies in the 1970s (2) the RTG does not wish to internationalise Burma's ethnic conflicts and (3) the economic self-interests by a section of RTG is demanding to put aside such UNHCR protectiontection of the refugees. All or part of these reasons may be influencing the RTG to have taken current position. However, with our recent efforts to negotiate with the Thailand's interest about the natural gas pipeline in particular, there are far less reasons now for Royal Thai Government to maintain current policy position in regards to Burma's refugees.


Obviously, there are no justifiable reasons that the Royal Thai Government continue to ignore our call to handover the Burma'the Burma's refugees affairs to the United Nations. Nowadays, the United Nations and international community are in favour of solution-oriented refugee policies, and the possibility of Thailand complicating in a large scale resettlement policy has been reduced. Furthermore, there is no reason to fear for internationalising Burma's internal conflict by granting UNHCR protection to Burma's refugees. The successive UN General Assembly resolutions, notably since 1994, have acknowledged the existence of internal armed conflicts between Buween Burmese military government and ethnic nationalities. As a solution to ethnic nationalities problem, tripartite dialogue for parties to the conflict has already been recommended by the UN General Assembly. The point is that the ethnic nationality problem in Burma has already been internationalised.

It is possible that the two reasons mentioned above may not be actual reasons by RTG in not inviting UNHCR into Burma refugee situation. The principal driving factor in Royal Thai Government's policy in regards to Burma's refrma's refugees appears to be the economic concessions from SLORC. The Royal Thai Government's treatment to Burma's refugees in particular can be seen in contrast to that of the Government of Bangladesh. Of course, we must certainly praise the RTG for its kindness and tolerance shown to Burma's refugees. At the same time, we are not failing to see the behaviours of RTG which one could only be described as exploitation to Burma and its people's desperate situation.


Regarding RTG's treatment of Burmese refugees as well as its relationship with SLORC since 1988, there are many possible instances that can be charged as of economic opportunism of Thai political and economic elite. The circumstances surrounding Yadana gas pipeline project, which the TOTAL/UNOCAL/PTT-EP all have stakes, clearly demonstrate this fact. For example, the timing of off-shore exploration agreement made (TOTAL's initiatives, according to FIDH) is coincided by the SLORC in an extremely desperate positionposition: at a time most on-shore oil companies that entered in 1989 beginning to withdrawn, which seriously threatening the SLORC's survival (NB: The existence of the gas reserve in the Gulf of Materban was well known to the business community much earlier, re: FIDH report). It is also a time the SLORC's political position was much weakened after the 1990 election and SLORC was under a serious condemnation by the United Nations General Assembly. There are also indications that the completion of pipeline project be linked to the ce the ceasefire agreement with the ethnic minority groups which have support bases in Thailand.

Generally, there has to be some bad feelings about such opportunist stance by the Oil companies that broker the deal with SLORC. The matter, however, should be put behind us and move forward with future plans. In anycase, to seize the funds from the sales of natural gas, we will certainly need the cooperation of the Royal Thai Government as well as the oil companies.


The Royal Thai Government cooperation is essential in regards to the protection and solution to the refugee crisis developing in its country. Unfortunately, to my observation throughout the years, the RTG doesn't seems to have a coherent set of policy to deal with this humanitarian problem. It is encouraging, however, to us that some Thai academics as well as Thai local Non-Government Organizations on the ground, over the years, have been able to propose sound humanitarian policy regarding Burma's refugees. Neverth Nevertheless, as Thai society as well as Government being at an early stage of democracy, such humanitarian and consistent national policy has not been taken shape in Thai political sphere. Instead, certain section of government seems to have dominated RTG's Burma refugee policy makings, resulting the policies that serving short-term economic interest of the political elite appears to have taken precedence.

Any decisive consideration regarding with Burma's refugees, therefore, are seen to have driven by economic interests ofrests of few people within Thai government. Nevertheless, our non-obstruction to trade-links with Burma, especially to that of the gas pipeline, will hopefully make less threatened for economic interests of those people and becoming no obstacle in granting United Nations protections to the refugees from Burma.


Our refugees to receive protection from the Royal Thai Government is an essential task and we must continue to respectfully urge the RTG to take appropriate measures. Thsures. The Royal Thai Government, on the otherhand, must also realise that the Burma refugee issue is unlikely to diminish over the period; instead it is developing to a crisis situation and threatening regional stability.

The supportive role of ASEAN diplomatic circle since 1993 have been important in bringing about proper solution to the Rohingya refugee problem in Bangladesh. While the situation from the western part of Burma border is still unsatisfactory, the ASEAN countries should continue to use their influence to both to both Thailand and Burma to bring an end to this humanitarian and political crisis at eastern border. We must also call upon the ASEAN dialogue partners and especially the United States Congress to give support to this matter.

With best regards, U Ne Oo.

Refugee Protection VS Economic self-interest