Causes and consequences
The most prominent role played by Thailand in forced migration has been that of a receiving nation. By virtue of its geographical proximity to various troubled nation states, Thailand has become the first safe haven for many refugees fleeing conflict, the most famous being the Indochina conflict. However, Thailand has a long history of receiving refugees prior to the 1970s with little or no external assistance.
Indochinese refugees prior to the end of the Vietnam War
Prior to World War II there were four distinct waves of Vietnamese refugees. The first group arrived as early as 1785 and sought 'royal protection' from the Thai Kingdom. The next wave was to appear in the 1820s and 1830s. These were Vietnamese Catholics fleeing religious persecution by the Vietnamese emperor Minh-Mang. At the end of the nineteenth century the French annexed parts of Eastern Thailand to force the Thais to cede Laos to the French. When the French withdrew, many of the Vietnamese who had entered Eastern Thailand with the French remained behind.
The fourth wave began in 1912, and continued over the next thirty years as refugees fled conflict areas between Vietnamese nationalists and French colonial forces. These refugees settled in Nakhorn Pranom province.
Until 1937 Vietnamese refugees obtained Thai citizenship and were fully assimilated into Thai society. This is evidenced by the fact that some of their number obtained high ranks in the civil and military services. The descendents of these immigrants are referred to as 'Old Vietnamese' and are estimated to be around 20,000 in number. In 1937 Thailand signed a treaty with the French which decreed that all Indochinese refugees entering Thailand would be considered French subjects and registered as foreign aliens.
After World War II Thailand was forced to withdraw from areas of western Cambodia that were ceded to it by Vichy France in the 1940s. Many Vietnamese who had settled in the Thai areas of Cambodia fled to Thailand with the Thais. This migration was in turn followed by refugees fleeing fighting between the French forces and the Viet Minh and Lao Issara (Free Lao). It is estimated that as many as 46,700 refugees fled to Thailand from 1946 to 1949.
During the 1950s, the Vietnamese population continued to grow due to a natural growth rate of approximately 3 per cent per annum, plus Vietnamese refugees from Cambodia and Laos in the final stages of the French colonial war. After 1949, Vietnamese refugees were no longer free to settle in Thailand. Instead they were restricted to five north-eastern provinces. In the 1950s the overt support for the Viet Minh by Vietnamese refugees in Thailand raised fears that refugees could form a Communist 'fifth column' in Thailand. This and other security fears associated with refugees have remained prominent concerns in Thai refugee policy-making up to the present day. In the early 1960s Thailand began to repatriate Vietnamese refugees to North Vietnam. As many as 35,000 were repatriated, but the process stopped with the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. It is estimated that approximately 80,000 Vietnamese remained in Thailand in 1975 on the eve of the post-Vietnam War refugee influx.
Indochinese refugees after the end of the Vietnam War
In the post-Vietnam War Diaspora, Thailand had not only to contend with 'boat people', but also 'land people' from neighbouring Cambodia (then Kampuchea) and Laos, resulting in Thailand shouldering by far the largest refugee burden in the region.
From the fall of Saigon in April 1975 until the end of that year, approximately 75,000 Indochinese refugees entered Thailand, most of whom came from Laos. The arrival rate dropped to approximately 35,000 per year for the following year and picked up again in 1978. The inflow of refugees peaked in 1979, with approximately 200,000, due to the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam. The number of arrivals tapered in the following years, with 113,867 in 1980, 43,260 in 1981, and 11,261 in 1982. For the ten-year period following 1975, Thailand received over 652,000 refugees, most of whom arrived by land. This figure is four times more than was received by any other Association of Southest Asian Nations (ASEAN) country, and accounted for approximately half of the entire post-1975 Indochinese Diaspora. Thailand continued to receive as much as half the total exodus from Indochina in the 1980s.
In addition to the official figures were another quarter of a million Cambodian displaced persons who do not feature in the data because they were deemed to be only temporarily displaced. The Cambodians were the largest ethnic group among the refugee population, followed by the lowland Laotians and Hmong, who continued to arrive in steady numbers in the 1980s after there was a rapid decline in the arrival of other ethnic groups. This was perceived by the Thai government to be economic migration as opposed to forced migration. The smallest group was the Vietnamese.
Approximately 80 per cent of the total number of Indochinese refugees in Thailand has since departed either through third-country resettlement, repatriation, or relocation. The Vietnamese have the highest resettlement rate at 90 per cent. They also experience the shortest resettlement interval period, with the average waiting time being less than a year. Lowland Laotians have the next highest resettlement rate at around 77 per cent; Cambodians are next at a rate of 67 per cent, and Hmong and other hill-tribe refugees come in last with a resettlement rate of only 57 per cent. The resettlement rates of all groups have declined dramatically since the early 1980s, leaving the country with a significant residual refugee population. The most common reason cited for this is 'compassion fatigue'.
The Thai authorities see repatriation as the only alternative to resettlement. They have been particularly forceful with this policy when dealing with Cambodian refugees. In 1979 around 43,000 Cambodian refugees were forcefully repatriated as a deterrent to other potential refugees. This process was halted shortly thereafter when it caused an international outcry.
During 1992 and 1993 there were large scale repatriations of Cambodian refugees organized by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Much of this work was undone when fighting broke out in western Cambodia between the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the armed opposition group the National Army of Democratic Kampuchea (NADK) - commonly known as the Khmer Rouge - in March 1994. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people fled into Thailand. On 25 March the Thai authorities began forcibly repatriating these refugees into an area of Cambodia controlled by the NADK. Many of the refugees were women and children, and the armed conflict was still occurring in this area. The move received strong international criticism.
Thailand is not a signatory of the UN convention on refugees, and thus is under no international obligation to resettle refugees within Thailand. In fact, while the Thai government is prepared to grant refugees temporary shelter while they wait for third-country resettlement or repatriation, it is not prepared to grant permanent residency or citizenship to any of the residual refugee population.
Other post-World War II refugees
In the post-war period, Thailand received refugees from China, Burma, and even a few from Malaysia. The Chinese arrived in 1949 in the wake of the Communist victory in China. Kuomingtan (KMT) forces (Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek) made up the bulk of these refugees, estimated at around 11,000 persons, but there were also some civilians included in this number. These Chinese forces formed communities in the remote northern frontier regions and established themselves as warlords controlling the drug trade in the infamous 'Golden Triangle'. They were a major security threat to Thailand, and were involved with frequent armed clashes with Thai security forces. Burma experienced a similar situation with KMT forces in that country. The Chinese civilian refugees of the time quickly integrated themselves into the already established Chinese communities in urban centres.
There have been many waves of Burmese refugees since Ne Win's military take-over in 1959. Many cross-border hill tribes have been involved in guerrilla wars against the central government, and many have sought temporary shelter in Thailand during government offensives. The Burmese number varied according the military situation at the time; however, estimates put the number at approximately 13,000 by the late 1970s.
In the late 1950s at the close of the 'Malaysian Emergency', a small number of Communist guerrillas slipped across the border into Thailand, where they blended into the local Malay community. These migrants are often blamed for the continuing insurgency problems experienced in Southern Thailand.
Burmese refugees in Thailand
The Burmese refugees in Thailand can be broadly categorized into two main groups: 'students' and ethnic minorities. 'Students' is a catch-all term for the students and urban professionals who took part in the 1988 political uprising and were forced to flee in the ensuing government crackdown. Historically, the 'students' constituted the majority of those deemed to be 'persons of concern to UNHCR', as they had access to UNHCR if they travelled under their own auspices from the Thai-Burma border to Bangkok, where the UNHCR office was located. They therefore had a greater chance at resettlement in a third country when the 'safe area', otherwise known as the Maneeloy Burmese Student Center, was in operation. This camp was 125 kilometres from Bangkok and was thus safe from cross-border incursions. It closed down in December 2001 and the remaining students were taken to one of the border camps, where they are now classified as 'border cases'.
The second group is made up of members of the different ethnic minority groups (primarily Karen, Karenni, and Shan) living near or straddling the Thai-Burmese border. This group has fled armed conflict, forced displacement, forced labour, and other abuses. Other than the Shan, these groups have been allowed to form camps. Historically, the ethnic minorities did not have access to UNHCR unless they could prove, again in Bangkok, 'secondary persecution' at the border. If they were unable to do this they would be classified as 'border cases' and advised to return to the border. These groups have little or no protection and are subject to cross-border attacks by Burmese forces, arrest if caught outside the camps, denial of entry at the border, and repeated instances of refoulement by the Thai authorities.
This group has been arriving since the end of World War II, but began arriving in significant numbers after a major Burmese government offensive in 1984. The refugees in camps on the border have swollen from approximately 20,000 in the 1980s to currently around 120,000. The camps are provided with basic food and medical assistance by a consortium of private, international relief agencies. In 1998, UNHCR established three permanent field offices on the border in order to provide international protection to the refugees, but it provides no humanitarian assistance to the camps. There are also an estimated 100,000 Shan refugees living in Thailand without the protection of camps. Historically, Shan people entering Thailand have been viewed as seasonal labour for orchards and construction sites. However, in July 1996, a group of Shan people in Thailand made an urgent appeal to UNHCR, asking for the setting up of refugee camps. Whilst their ethnic background, Tai Yai, allows them to move within the Tai Yai community in Thailand, they have become more visible in recent years due to increased persecution and forced relation programmes inside Burma, resulting in greater numbers arriving in Thailand.
Following a July 1995 ceasefire between the New Mon State Party and the ruling regime in Burma, there was a repatriation of approximately 10,000 Mon refugees. This was carried out without international criteria being met, and no UNHCR monitoring arrangements on the Burmese side of the border.
There are as many as 800,000 Burmese living and working in Thailand outside the camps, according to Thai government estimates in 1997. As Thailand has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the Thai government sees the Burmese as displaced persons and does not process them as refugees. Many choose to live and work outside the camps, as camp life can offer little in the way of a future and there seems to be little in the way of a solution in sight to the problems across the border in Burma. Some also do not feel safe in the camps situated on the Burmese border where they can be attacked by Burmese government forces. Many may flee persecution but choose to work rather than stay in a camp where employment is forbidden. Due to Thailand's stance on the status of refugees, these people are largely seen as economic refugees despite their frequently mixed reasons for entering Thailand, and are classed as illegal migrant workers. The Thai government attempts to manage this population through a series of registrations, the last one being in 2001 when 447,093 Burmese applied for registration.
The Thai government has not allowed UNHCR to take a leading role in the Burmese refugee situation as they did with the Indochinese refugees of the 1970s. This has had a very negative impact on the resettlement prospects, security, and humanitarian efforts for the Burmese refugees. Critics of this policy have suggested that this may be due to negative experiences that Thailand had with the refugee crisis in the 1970s; an unwillingness to upset its neighbour, Burma, by internationalizing its ethnic conflicts; or the economic self-interest of parts of the Thai government.
Security concerns have featured strongly in Thai policy-making in regard to refugees since the 1950s. After 1999 and 2000, the Thai government took a much stronger stance on Burmese refugees following two incidents where Burmese nationals provided cause for these concerns. In October 1999 a group known as the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW) took over the visa section of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, holding around twenty people hostage. After negotiations, the Thai government flew them to the Burmese border and let them go free. They crossed into Burma, where they sought refuge with a group known as God's Army, led by two boy twins. In January 2000, representatives of God's Army took over the Rachaburi Provincial Hospital. This time the Thai military stormed the hospital and killed all of the hostage-takers. The Thai public was outraged by the actions of the Burmese, and the government cracked down on Burmese 'illegals'. The crackdown resulted in many cases of forced repatriation without any concern for the safety of the repatriated parties.
- Human Rights Watch: Burmese Refugees in Thailand at Risk (Press Backgrounder) http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/05/thaiback0506.htm
- Amnesty International: Thailand http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/countries/thailand?OpenView&Start=1&Count=30&Expandall
- Human Rights Watch: Thailand http://www.hrw.org/asia/thailand.php
Disaster-induced displacement is most commonly caused by periodic flooding in Thailand. The Thai response to these disasters is usually prompt, and provides adequate relief to those displaced. Heavy flooding exacerbated by deforestation does often occur, causing extensive property damage; however, the efficient response by both the community and government authorities coupled with the eventual subsiding of floodwaters means that disaster-related displacement in Thailand is usually only temporary.
Dam construction and related flooding
The construction of dams has been one of the leading causes of development-induced displacement in Thailand. The most well-known Thai dams are the Pak Mun (or Pak Mool), the Rasi Salai, the Khao Laem, and the Sri Nakorin.
The Pak Mun dam is infamous for being one of the country's least successful dam projects. The dam was constructed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) in 1994 to provide hydroelectric power. Its actual output is far below that for which it was planned, and its financial, social, and environmental costs are much greater than expected. In all, around 1,700 households lost part or all of their land, and a further 6,000 households lost part or all of their livelihood when fishing grounds were destroyed. Compensation was paid, but compensation disputes continue, with the displaced complaining that they haven't been adequately compensated. The Thai government and the World Bank, who funded the project, counter that the compensation has been generous and that fraudulent claims have been made as a result of this generosity.
The Pak Mun dam was one of the factors leading to the formation of the 'Assembly of the Poor' in 1995, a local Thai NGO championing the rights of poor villages suffering from large-scale development projects.
The Rasi Salai dam, located on the Mun river, was completed in 1994. It was designed as an irrigation project, with the objective of irrigating 5,500 hectares in Northeastern Thailand. The dam displaced around 3,000 families, of which around 1,200 were compensated. Protests for further compensation ensued, including demands for the reconstruction of a village in the path of the dam's rising reservoir populated by 1,850 people. In August 1999, the inhabitants dared the government to drown them or open the sluice gates. The standoff ended when the Science Minister agreed to open the gates and keep them open for at least two years in July 2000. The dam is considered unsuitable for irrigation, as it is built on a large salt deposit which makes the water too salty for this purpose.
The Khao Laem dam was built in 1989 by EGAT on the Kwai Noi river. It displaced 1,860 families, many of whom now live illegally around the edge of the dam's reservoir, having found the land they were resettled to unsatisfactory in terms of maintaining their customary way of life. The Sri Nakorn dam was built in the late 1970s not far from where the Khao Laem dam is now located. This dam displaced approximately 4,000 families.
- Images Asia: details of the Salween dam plan http://www.searin.org/Th/SWD/SWDnE1.htm
- South East Asia Rivers Network: Salween Watch http://strider.home.igc.org/Environmental/SalweenWatchNo3.htm
The construction of pipelines for natural gas has been another source of displacement. A 260-kilometre pipeline carrying natural gas from Burma was constructed by the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) in the late 1990s. This project affected 1,350 families on the Thai side of the border. Another gas pipeline is planned to pipe gas from a gas field in the Thai-Malaysian Joint Development Area (JDA) to Songkhla in southern Thailand. This project is expected to run through as many as forty-four villages. Land-based construction of the pipeline was postponed in 2001, and it remains a highly sensitive issue.