Thailand denies sending villagers who fled air strikes back to Myanmar
Thailand’s prime minister has denied that his country’s security forces forced villagers who had fled from military air strikes back to Myanmar, saying they returned home of their own accord.
Prayuth Chan-ocha said his country is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting, as it has done many times for decades.
His comments came a day after humanitarian groups said Thailand had been sending back some of the thousands of people who fled a series of air attacks by Myanmar’s military.
“There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area. When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force,” Mr Prayuth told reporters.
“We won’t push them back,” he said. “If they are having fighting, how can we do so? But if they don’t have any fighting at the moment, can they go back first?”
The governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, where as many as 3,000 refugees had sought shelter, said later that those still on Thai soil were expected to return to their own country in a day or two.
The weekend attacks, which sent ethnic Karen people to seek safety in Thailand, were another escalation in the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests against its February 1 coup.
At least 510 protesters have been killed since the coup, according to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which says the true toll is likely to be much higher. It says 2,574 people have been detained.
Protests continued on Tuesday despite the deaths of more than 100 people on Saturday alone.
Engineers, teachers and students from the technology university in the southern city of Dawei marched without incident.
The number of protesters killed in the city rose to eight with the announcement of the death of a teenager who was shot by soldiers on Saturday as he rode a motorbike with two friends. According to local media, a hospital certificate attributed his death to “serious injuries as he fell from a motorbike”.
Medical workers in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city, honoured three of their colleagues killed by security forces. The two doctors and a nurse were remembered in a simple ceremony in front of a banner with their photographs and the words “Rest In Power.”
At a cemetery in the biggest city, Yangon, three families gave their last farewells to relatives killed on Monday in a night of chaos in the South Dagon neighbourhood. Residents said police and soldiers moved through the streets firing randomly with live ammunition.
The coup that ousted the government of Aung San Suu Kyi reversed the country’s progress towards democracy since her National League for Democracy party won elections in 2015 after five decades of military rule.
At Thailand’s Mae Sam Laep village along the Salween River, which forms the border with Myanmar, paramilitary Thai Rangers on Tuesday twice waved off a boat that had come from the other side carrying seven people, including one lying flat and another with a bandage on his head. But ambulances soon arrived on the Thai side and it landed anyway.
Thai villagers helped medical staff carry the injured people on stretchers to a small clinic at a nearby checkpoint. One man had large bruises on his back with open wounds, an injury one medical worker said could have been caused by an explosion.
An elderly woman in the group had small cuts and scabs all over her face. Thai nurses in protective gear to guard against Covid-19 attended to her, giving her and others tests for the coronavirus.
Another villager from the boat, 48-year-old Aye Ja Bi, said he had been wounded by a bomb dropped by a plane. His legs were hit by shrapnel and his ears were ringing, he said, but he was unable to travel to get help until Tuesday.
The air strikes appeared to be retaliation for an attack by guerrillas of the Karen National Liberation Army on a government military outpost, in which they claimed to have killed 10 soldiers and captured eight. The group is fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people.
About 2,500-3,000 refugees crossed into Thailand on Sunday, according to several humanitarian aid agencies who have long worked with the Karen.
They said on Monday that Thai soldiers had begun to force people to return to Myanmar.
“They told them it was safe to go back even though it is not safe. They were afraid to go back but they had no choice,” said a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network, a group of Karen civil society organisations in Myanmar.