Thailand Criticized for Returning Myanmar Resistance Members

Thailand Criticized for Returning Myanmar Resistance Members
From left: Thiha, Saw Phyo Lay and Htet Naing Win, the three resistance fighters, are pictured on the morning of April 4 in Thai custody before they were sent back into the territory of a junta ally (Photo : Myanmar Now)

BANGKOK (AP) — Human rights groups and opposition politicians in Thailand are criticizing the government for forcibly repatriating three men who were reportedly members of an anti-government resistance movement in military-ruled Myanmar.

The Bangkok-based People’s Empowerment Foundation said the action violated universal human rights principles and Thailand’s own policy because the men were likely to be in danger as a result of their activities fighting against Myanmar’s government.

“Given the situation of generalized violence in Myanmar, all Myanmar nationals in Thailand should be given temporary protective status and, as per Thai law, no one should be forced to return to a situation where they may face grave human rights abuses,” Patrick Phongsathorn of the human rights organization Fortify Rights said Tuesday.

A document issued by Thailand’s National Security Council that was leaked to local media and seen by The Associated Press said the repatriation followed official policy and the men had not presented themselves as combatants in Myanmar’s often-brutal civil conflict.

Myanmar’s independent media, which operate underground and in exile, reported that the three men were members of a resistance group called the Lion Battalion Commando and crossed into Thailand last month to have at least one of them treated for injuries.

There has been serious fighting for the past two weeks in eastern Myanmar’s Myawaddy township, part of an ongoing struggle that began in February 2021 when the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. When initial nonviolent protests against military rule were put down with lethal force, armed resistance broke out in much of the country.

The Myanmar media reports said the three men, identified as Thiha, 38, Saw Phyo Lay, 26, and Htet Naing Win, 31, were arrested on March 31 at a Thai road checkpoint and sent back to Myanmar on 4 April.

The reports said the men were sent on a boat across the Moei River, which marks the border. They jumped out to try to escape but were shot and wounded and then captured by Myanmar’s Border Guard Force, which is composed of ethnic minority militias allied with the military government.

The Border Guard Force later turned them over to Myanmar’s military. One was reported to have died of his wounds, but the details of their repatriation, sourced to their resistance group and witnesses, could not be independently confirmed.

The Thai government has not given a full public account of what happened, but the leaked National Security Council document said the three men were among a larger group of Myanmar nationals who were arrested after crossing illegally into Thailand and had not been singled out to be sent back. Several thousand villagers fled the fighting in Myanmar last week and were given temporary shelter in Thailand’s Tak province.

According to the document, the three men were arrested at a checkpoint, had no passports or any identification documents, and were charged with illegal entry. It said the three told authorities they had entered Thailand to attend the funeral of the mother of a friend.

The document also said that Thai officials had not been notified that the men were anti-government combatants in Myanmar and no groups had contacted them to ask that they not be sent back.

The People’s Empowerment Foundation challenged the NSC account, suggesting that the men were not part of a larger group of detainees. It also said local human rights groups had approached officials to discuss the men’s situation but were told to return the following day. When they did so, the men had already been sent back, it said.

“Thai border security officials are fully aware that BGF (Border Guard Force) is not a safe zone for Myanmar nationals fleeing combat. Sending the three men to BGF territory, therefore, is inevitably sending them to their death by torture. Why did Thai security officials do that?” the group said in a statement Monday.

Two Thai political parties raised similar criticisms.

On Saturday, Rangsiman Rome, a spokesperson for the opposition Move Forward Party, said the repatriation reflected the close relationship between Thailand and Myanmar’s military government.

The Commoners’ Party, another opposition party, said in a statement Saturday that Thai authorities may have violated international law.