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Hmong refugee drama in the North - The Nation
Published on June 22, 2008

Leaders of the dramatic protest march out of the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Phetchabun have been forcibly returned to Laos along with a group of Hmong wanted by the Lao authorities, sources in the North said Sunday.

A further 800 refugees are in the process of being deported to Laos today - some allegedlyagainst their will, but many having accepted money from the Thai government to return to their homeland after languishing for several years while United Nations refugee officials were denied access to the camp.

Another 500 to 600 people have been locked up in provincial jails after the Army forcibly dispersed the huge protest late Saturday, while reporters were kept well away from the scene of the stand-off.

An estimated 5,000 people marched out of the strife-torn Huay Nam Khao camp early on Friday saying they were walk to Bangkok to draw international attention to their plight. The Hmong were blocked by riot police and troops on a road about 5km from the Khet Noi, the next village, and forced to spend a night in the open.

The Phetchabun governor arrived Saturday to negotiate with the refugees, who have endured a series of crises in recent weeks, including a fire that burnt down half the homes in their camp.

The blaze is believed to have been deliberately lit, possibly at the instigation of Hmong groups in the US, to try to draw international attention to the refugees' plight. The US Government introduced legislation in Congress recently to try to prevent the Hmong from being forcibly returned.

US officials have been monitoring developments in the camp closely and the State Department is said to be considering a "large intake" of Hmong refugees, although no decision appears to have been reached at this stage.

About 8,000 Lao Hmong have been languishing in the camp for several years claiming they have fled harassment and persecution in their communist homeland, largely because of ties to the CIA-backed force that fought the communists in the 1960s and 70s.

However the Thai and Lao governments say the Hmong in Phetchabun are simply economic migrants duped by human traffickers who led them to believe they could be resettled in the West.

Leaders of the protest march and others wanted by the Lao authorities - a total of about eight families - were reportedly trucked to Nong Khai at 3am today and deported to Laos early today (Sun).Leader Lee Xue, who has had run-ins with Thai authorities in recent weeks, plus a man who led a BBC reporter to meet a group of "jungle Hmong" several years ago, were believed to be among those returned.

Another 832 people were packed into buses at about 11am and driven to Nong Khai for deportation. The Hmong have allegedly been paid Bt15,000 per family to return, but some of those bused to the border today were crying, shouting and upset because they had had second thoughts about returning, sources in the North said.

Aid workers at Huay Nam Khao said about 1600 people, or a third of those who marched out of the camp on Friday, had failed to return.

Videos of the protest march show the refugees holding banners appealing for the United Nations to intervene and stop forced repatriations.

FORCED REPATRIATION - Hmong forced to return to Laos after big protest march

Despite recent legislation in the US aimed at stopping the forced repatriation of Hmong people from Thailand to Laos, local authorities forced a large group of the minority hilltribe people to return yesterday.

The forced repatriation by Thai officials happened after about 5,000 Hmong marched out of the Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun on Friday, attempting to walk to Bangkok to draw international attention to their plight.

Sources in the North said some leaders of the march from the refugee camp were forcibly returned to Laos yesterday, along with a group of Hmong wanted by Lao authorities.

The sources said another 800 Hmong will be deported to Laos today _ some allegedly against their will. However, many have accepted money from the government to return to Laos after being in camps in Thailand for several years.

United Nations refugee officials were denied access to the camps.

The army forcibly broke up the protest march on Saturday and 500 to 600 Hmong have been locked up in provincial jails.

Army officers kept reporters away from the stand-off between their troops and the marchers.

The Hmong were blocked by riot police and troops on a road about 5km from the village of Khet Noi and forced to spend the night in the open.

The repatriation of the Hmong comes only weeks after the US government introduced legislation in Congress in an attempt to prevent them being forcibly returned to Laos.

The Hmong claim refugee status _ which they have been denied in Thailand _ and claim they fled persecution in Laos because they were part of a CIA-backed force that fought the communists in the 1960s and 1970s. The government insists the Hmong in Phetchabun are economic migrants.

About eight families were reportedly taken to Nong Khai by truck yesterday and then sent to Laos. Another 832 Hmong were put into buses and taken to Nong Khai for deportation.

A source said some in the buses were crying and shouting because they did not want to return to Laos.

Aid workers at Huay Nam Khao said about 1,600 people, or a third of those who marched out of the camp, had failed to return.

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