BANGKOK — Thailand plans to close its border camps and send more than 100,000 refugees back to Myanmar following the recent handover of power to a new military-backed government, an official said on Monday.
"They have been in Thailand for more than 20 years and it became our burden to take care of them," National Security Council chief Tawin Pleansri said.
"I cannot say when we will close down the camps but we intend to do it," he added, speaking after a meeting of the government security body chaired by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"We are now in the process of discussion with the Myanmar government."
He said Thailand was in contact with the UN Refugee Agency about returning the camp residents to Myanmar, also known as Burma, where a November election won by an army-backed party was marred by complaints of intimidation and fraud.
But a spokeswoman for the UN agency in Bangkok, Kitty McKinsey, said it was too soon for the refugees to return home.
"We have been working very well with the Thai government and we do understand that they don't want the refugees to stay here forever," she told AFP.
"But the solution is not forcing people to go back to a country that is still dangerous. What we would really like to see is that the returns are done in safety and dignity, and they absolutely have to be voluntary," she said.
According to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, a group of international non-governmental organisations operating along the border, about 142,000 refugees were living in the camps as of January.
"There are still new arrivals coming into the camp. There's still conflict in eastern Burma," said Sally Thompson, the consortium's deputy executive director, urging Thailand not to forcibly return any of the refugees.
"It would be premature to talk about closure at this point. In the long term everybody hopes the refugees in the camps will be able to return to Burma."
Fierce fighting between government troops and Karen ethnic rebels around the time of the November election caused about 20,000 people to temporarily flee across the porous border.
Most of the camp residents came from strife-torn villages in eastern Myanmar, which has been plagued by a decades-old conflict between the military and ethnic minority rebels seeking greater autonomy.
Vast numbers fled to escape the junta's counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say has deliberately targeted civilians -- driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.
Cases of rape, torture and execution by the military have also been documented by rights campaigners.
Myanmar has been ruled by the military for almost five decades and the armed forces continue to dominate the impoverished nation.
The new president, former premier Thein Sein, is one of several generals who shed their military uniforms to contest the November election.
Thailand drew global criticism in 2009 when it used troops to forcibly repatriate about 4,500 ethnic Hmong back to Laos, despite fears of persecution on their return for their hill tribe's US alliance during the Vietnam War.
In December the US-based campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Thailand to stop treating refugees fleeing conflict in eastern Myanmar as "human ping pong balls".
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