PHETCHABUN, Thailand – Thailand sent army troops with shields and batons to evict some 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers today and send them back to Laos despite strong objections from the U.S. and rights groups who fear they will face persecution.
Under tight security, more than 1,000 of the Hmong were loaded onto covered military trucks and driven out of the camp toward buses waiting near the Lao border, Thai authorities said. Journalists kept at a distance from the camp could see many children inside the trucks.
With the eviction under way, the United States called for it to stop.
“The United States strongly urges Thai authorities to suspend this operation,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement, noting that the United Nations and Thailand in the past had deemed that many of the Hmong in this group were “in need of protection because of the threats they might face in Laos.”
The Hmong claim they have been persecuted by the Lao government ever since.
More than 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, are known to have fled to Thailand since 1975. Most were either repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries, particularly the United States – but Washington has said it has no plans to resettle more Hmong.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva commended the start of the operation.
“It went very well. There was no resistance from the Hmong, and we will try to send them all back,” Abhisit told reporters, adding that Thailand had received “confirmation from the Lao government that these Hmong will have a better life.”
The Thai government claims most of the Hmong are economic migrants who entered the country illegally and have no claims to refugee status. The group was being held at an overcrowded camp in northern Thailand that the government wants to close.
The Thai army’s coordinator for the operation, Col. Thana Charuwat, said 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers were involved in the eviction. He said the troops carried no firearms and that their shields and batons met international standards for dealing with situations in which people are being moved against their will.