Under the quiet surface

I drove home on Tuesday night and there were still people in the monastary near the river and people in the Army Base Holding Center.

I drove by again on Wednesday morning and all those people were gone.

The Thai authorities tell us that they only sent people back who wanted to go home. That the repatriation was voluntary. The news circulating is that people are worried about their homes being looted.

People I talked to during the madness of the return on Tuesday were confused. Some didn’t know what was happening. Some didn’t know why they were being sent back. Some said they didn’t want to go back.

Its not as if someone stood up and said: “Everyone who wants to go back over here, and everyone who wants to stay over there.” People were told to organize themselves by their villages in order to get fed. Then they were taken by truck to the crossing point nearest their village, herded off the truck by soldiers, and if they were lucky, had some aid workers put some food and water in their hands before getting shipped off on a boat.

Possibly someone asked some village leaders if they wanted to go home and possibly some leaders said that they did. Possibly someone asked some people if they wanted to go home and probably some people did. Most likely when asked if they wanted to go home, people said: “I want to go home, when it is safe.”

The Thai policy on refugees is that you must be fleeing active conflict in order to seek refuge. Which means that if the guns aren’t firing, you can’t come and that when they stop, you have to go back. It appears you have go to back pretty quickly too. It’s like this:  you are standing in a room with someone who has a gun to your head and Thailand is standing behind the only closed door to the room. You cannot ask Thailand for help and Thailand refuses to open the door for you. Between that moment when the person holding the gun pulls the trigger and the instant when the bullet hits your head, that’s when you can flee, that’s when the door will open for you. And just say for a moment, the bullet went whizzing past your ear, then the moment it is embedded in the wall, you are sent back into the room again and the door will close. That’s what is happening here.

Why do I disbelieve the official line that all refugees were voluntarily repatriated? Well because the truth is that not everyone left. Some are in hiding. Now of those people, it is true that some left on Tuesday to secure their homes. Of the groups I observed perhaps as many as 20% of the adults went home on Tuesday and none of the children. If that trend were applied to the general refugee population we would still have some people in refuge here in Thailand.

Groups now are coordinating aid for those people in hiding and planning their strategy for the next flow of refugees. Some have headed South to Sanklaburi to help the refugees there. The real heroes of these days, I have to say, are the Burmese grassroots groups who have done a stunning job of getting concrete assistance to those in need. I saw them yesterday feeding people pocketed in all kinds of places, making sure that they were keeping safe, keeping warm and keeping fed. All I can do at this point is step back and let them do their great work, providing whatever it is they need whenever it is that they ask for it.

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