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Hmong `will be forced back'

Laos taking steps to prevent their return

WASSANA NANUAM & BHANRAVEE TANSUBHAPOL

Security authorities have resolved to repatriate to Laos over 6,000 ethnic Hmong seeking refuge in Phetchabun's Khao Kho district.

Pallop Pinmanee, deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), said security agencies met last week to discuss the presence of 6,558 Hmong in Phetchabun province and resolved that all of them must be forced back over the border to Laos.

The National Security Council and the Police Immigration Bureau are the authorities responsible for the repatriation. The Foreign Ministry would be asked to coordinate with Vientiane to take the Hmong back.

``If Laos refuses to take the Hmong back, the authorities will take all means necessary to push them back across the border. The Thai government has no policy to open a refugee camp to house illegal immigrants or shoulder this burden,'' Gen Pallop said.

He said the Hmong in Khao Kho, if allowed to stay on Thai soil, would pose problems for the country.

``If we let them stay here any longer, they will form a settlement and become a `second Tham Krabok'. Our country will be forced to shoulder a big burden. We just closed down the Hmong settlement at Wat Tham Krabok and don't want to see such a thing again,'' Gen Pallop said.

Authorities in Khao Kho had asked landowners not to shelter the Hmong or face charges of sheltering illegal immigrants.

``Now we are waiting for the appropriate time. We will truck them to the border regardless of whether the Lao authorities accept them or not. We cannot allow these people to remain in our country,'' Gen Pallop said.

A source familiar with the area said the Hmong fled from Laos to Huay Nam Khao village in Khao Kho district in September 2004. Many others followed and their number eventually reached 6,558. They slipped across the border via Loei's Thali district before being trucked to Huay Nam Khao village, about 170km from Thali. The Hmong reportedly paid 2,000 baht each to the human traffickers.

About 400 of the Hmong are former soldiers of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which fought against the communists in Laos. The former soldiers and members of their families, about 2,000 people in total, fled to Thailand to escape crackdowns in Laos.

Another 2,000 of the Hmong are those who previously stayed in the Tham Krabok settlement but failed to win permission to settle in third countries. The remaining 2,000 or so Hmong are illegal immigrants.

The source said Laos did not recognise these Hmong as Lao citizens and does not want to take them back. It has reportedly deployed troops along the border in Thali district for fear the Thai authorities might push the Hmong back into Laos.

Third Army commander Lt-Gen Picharnmet Muangmanee said the Hmong in Phetchabun posed a security problem to the country and must be repatriated.

He said some trafficking gangs had lured Hmong people by saying they would get the chance to be resettled in third countries, including the US, if they crossed the border to stay in Huay Nam Khao village.

Phetchabun governor Direk Thuengfang declined to comment on the planned repatriation of the Hmong, saying that the National Security Council was handling it.

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