Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Jan 6 (IPS) – The recent deportation of Hmong asylum seekers to Laos has shown that Thailand’s powerful military remains the dominant player in shaping the relationship between this South-east Asian kingdom and its immediate neighbours.
Thai analysts are hardly surprised, given the long history of the Thai army calling the shots to determine Bangkok’s foreign policy with neighbouring Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia. It is rooted in military thinking that was dominant during the Cold War, when Thailand was a strong ally of the United States government’s war in Indo-China.
“The army has always sought to be in charge of Thailand’s foreign policy with regards to its immediate neighbours,” said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The treatment of the Hmong reflects this. It carries a lot of Cold War baggage to some extent.”
Such power enables the Thai military to “verify who can stay and who cannot stay in the country,” Sunai told IPS. “The deportation of the Hmong reveals the new relationship between the Thai army and the Laotian government.”
In fact, the operation that saw more than 4,000 Hmong men, women and children deported on Dec. 28 last year had all the flair of a military operation. An estimated 5,000-strong Thai force, armed with batons and shields, ensured that all the members of this vulnerable ethnic minority were transported in a convoy of some 100 military trucks and buses to Laos. A Thai military officer saw the issue in a different light. It was a “voluntary” effort by the Hmong to go home, Thai Armed Forces Headquarters’ deputy chief of joint staff, Gen. Worapong Sanganetra, was quoted as having told the local media.
Thailand’s civilian government has echoed similar sentiments in statements that also sought to characterise the Hmong as “illegal migrants,” not as a group that had fled their homeland in search of political asylum.
“Thai authorities managed the safe and orderly return of some 4,300 Laotian Hmong illegal migrants in the shelter at Huay Nam Khao in Petchaboon Province and in the Immigration Detention Centre in Nong Khai Province to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in accordance with the Thai Immigration Act,” stated the Thai foreign ministry.
The deported Hmong belong to a minority ethnic tribe living in the mountains of northern and central Laos. Their fear of persecution at home by the authorities of Laos, a communist-ruled country, stemmed from the Hmong’s ties with the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They fought alongside Washington’s spy agency to stop Laotian communist guerrillas taking power in a clandestine war from 1961 to 1975.
At the time of the CIA ‘secret war’ in Laos, the Thai military was very much on the side of the Hmong fighters and the CIA’s operatives. Such ties continued even after the communists triumphed in Laos – becoming a bone of contention between Vientiane and Bangkok.
September 2007 marked a decisive end to this Cold War legacy and gave rise to a new relationship that the Thai military wanted to cultivate with Laos. Gen. Surayud Chulanont, the prime minister at the time, headed a military government that had come to power following a September 2006 coupd’etat that overthrew a popularly elected administration.
A bilateral agreement signed in September 2007 between Laos and Thailand sought to classify the Hmong who had fled Laos for safety to Thailand as “illegal immigrants” and threatened them with deportation. It consequently ruled out a role for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which had been involved in aiding, till then, some 300,000 Hmong who had sought refuge in Thailand since the end of the Indo-China conflict in the mid-1970s and subsequently resettled in the United States.
Thai journalists who had reported about the Hmong fleeing persecution in Laos had to capitulate to the new regimen. “The military has slapped stiff restrictions on news coverage” of the Hmong asylum seekers, wrote senior journalist Supalak Ganjanakhundee at the time.
“The restrictions include no reporting of events or incidents that may shed bad light on Thailand or its officials or anything that may encourage Hmong to enter this country.”
“We had to ask permission from the military after these new guidelines to cover the Hmong,” Supalak, who writes for ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily, said in an interview with IPS. “I was surprised by this because before we had easy access to the Hmong refugee camps. Many of my requests were rejected.”
The media blackout, which remained in force till the latest deportation, confirmed that the military, rather than the civilian government, was in charge of the Hmong policy, added the journalist of over 20 years, who has covered regional issues. “It was the National Security Council and later ISOC (Internal Security Operations Command), and not the ministry of foreign affairs, that had a greater say in the Hmong case.”
Yet that is to be expected in Thailand’s current political context, where the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was formed a year ago with political deals shaped by the military. “It shows that Abhisit is beholden to the military on certain policy issues,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The civilian government and the military have cooperated in dealing with the Hmong.”
Such cooperation has marked a shift from foreign policy being a “contested area” between the military and civilian governments since the early 1990s, when Thailand began moving away from military regimes to civilian administrations, Thitinan explained.
“The post-Cold War era saw an uneasy relationship between the military and civilian governments on foreign policy as the country became more democratic. The military’s role had begun to diminish till the 2006 coup.”
The military has been “emboldened” since then, he added. “Yet that exposes the Abhisit government, which is trying to build an image of respecting human rights and international law.”