The human rights of those fleeing military coup-hit Myanmar into Thailand will be respected, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said Monday as local authorities confirmed that several hundred ethnic Karen refugees have entered the country following attacks by the junta.
Prayuth said he was aware of the ongoing violence in Myanmar after the coup but that he did not want a wave of refugees showing up in Thailand. On Monday, a Thai foreign ministry spokesman and a local government official denied reports that refugees who had crossed the border were being pushed back to their home country.
“We know about the problems in our neighboring country; we are considering these issues,” Prayuth, a former army chief and ex-junta leader, told reporters. “However, in the meantime, let it be an internal matter because we don’t want to have an exodus into our territory. But we will observe human rights.”
“We have a common border and feel the impacts when fighting flares and causes migration. We have to cope with this,” the prime minister said. “How many refugees are expected? We have prepared an area, but for how many – we are not talking about that.”
The fallout from eight weeks of increasingly violent army attacks on civilians since the Feb. 1 military takeover of Myanmar spilled across the border into Thailand over the weekend.
Some of the attacks targeted villagers in Myanmar’s Karen state, which borders Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. Aid groups were quoted as saying by Reuters news agency that 3,000 villagers in southeastern Karen state had fled into Thailand after deadly air attacks by the army.
Sangkhom Kudchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang district in Mae Hong Son province, said the Thai military had set up five screening spots, but could not confirm the number of refugees who had crossed the border since the coup began.
“Other government agencies are not authorized to share information. The military disallows access by other government officials because of security concerns,” Sangkhom told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, in a phone interview. “There are displaced people and [they] are under the military control.”
Sithichai Chindaluang, Thailand’s Mae Hong Son provincial governor, said several hundred Karen were taking refuge at screening centers, according to a military radio broadcast.
He and a foreign ministry spokesman denied reports that refugees were being pushed back to Myanmar.
“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement.
The Thai PBS channel reported that Myanmar government forces launched air strikes on Karen-held areas to retaliate for an attack by the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) on Saturday. A Karen source who requested anonymity said the KNU, the armed ethnic group which controls the southeastern region, has vowed to protect anti-coup activists who fled to the region.
Prayuth also defended the participation by Thai troops in Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day on Saturday – the same day that Myanmar government forces killed more than 100 people during anti-junta protests nationwide, in the single bloodiest day of violence since the Feb. 1 coup.
“Lately we have had to find a mechanism to enable us to follow the political developments or violence in Myanmar,” Prayuth said, saying the government needed to maintain a military channel with Myanmar to monitor the situation there.
Weeks of violence
Myanmar has seen weeks of violence as troops turned weapons on protesters throughout the nation after the coup that saw the military overthrow the government, which was democratically elected in November 2020. Coup leaders detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her government.
Security forces unleashed machine guns and grenades against protesters on Sunday, killing more than a dozen a day after forces killed 114 people, including six children, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. More than 450 have been killed since the coup began, drawing international condemnation.
Also on Monday, Vivian Balakrishnan, the foreign minister of Singapore, a member of the 10-state Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, called for national reconciliation there.
“All sides, all stakeholders have to sit down peacefully, in good faith and have frank, open, and constructive dialogue to create the future that the young people in Myanmar so dearly want,” he said, according to a ministry transcript.
He called on ASEAN to assist Myanmar find peace.
“But I think it is essential for ASEAN’s credibility, centrality, and relevance to have a view, have a position and to be able to offer some constructive assistance to Myanmar – a fellow member state of ASEAN,” he said.
The regional bloc has been widely criticized for not taking a hard stance against Naypyidaw over the coup and the killings of protesters since the military takeover, although in recent weeks Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have called for a special meeting of ASEAN leaders to address the crisis in Myanmar.
ASEAN officials have not yet come out publicly to condemn Saturday’s slaughter.
“I must confess to you that I am pessimistic,” Vivian said. “We still do not believe in foreign interference in domestic politics but as fellow ASEAN member states we hope they will take into consideration the views of our leaders.”
He was referring to one of the bloc’s founding principles that its members do not interfere in the domestic affairs of fellow ASEAN states.
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