10 October 2008

Letter 3.60

In Bangkok I met with some friends who've been involved with the refugee camps, and they know a bit more about the country they're in. You may have heard of the 'voluntary' repatriation of the Khymer. It was of course far less voluntary than the Thai government tried to make it sound like.

At Sae Keo camp, which is controlled internally by the Khymer Rouge, the government was expecting about 25,000 of the 32,000 refugees -- soldiers, their families, and isolated family-less persons -- to return to Cambodia to take up positions fighting against the Vietnamese. Much of the aid that had come into Thailand for the refugees has of course been used to provision Pol Pot's people. They're re-armed, rested up, given surreptitious training, and sent back to fight -- a policy Thailand vociferously denies it is following -- and only a small amount of aid gets to non-participant refugees.

A great deal is skimmed off the top by the Thai bureaucracy and higher-ups, and Thai villagers near the border are also demanding -- and getting -- aid: perhaps not unfairly, since they've suffered from both the war and the presence of refugees; but there is a great deal of anger and it has happened that Thai villagers have harassed the refugees and even fired rifles and thrown grenades into the camps. Every Thai has a vast store of armament. But what the villagers are doing in the Northeast is, apparently, child's play to what the Thais living on the Gulf islands are doing to this years crop of boat people: yes, there are boat people again, now that the currents and winds have become favorable again, though not in the same numbers as last year.

Anyway, the people I know have been working to provide the real refugees with some possibilities: training programs, language programs, etc., and of course a religious program. (The Khymer are a devout people, and all their monks were killed or forcibly disrobed many years ago. Quite a few of the men in the camp would like to ordain as monks, but the Thai government will not allow it, ostensibly for the reason that as monks they would have to be allowed to remain in Thailand and that the Khymer would be ordaining not out of religious motivation but from a desire to be free of the camps. Another reason, though, is that these men as monks would be useless as a buffer between Thailand and Vietnam. The whole point of Thailand's allowing the refugees in in the first place was to be able to support the Khymer Rouge as a buffer force.)

So... my friends were doing obvious good in the camps, and had an established position, and so they were watched carefully to make sure they didn't get out of line and were tolerated. (Once at the wat -- temple -- inside the camp -- founded by them -- a number of Khymer men shaved their heads and the Thai government got very upset, accusing them of plans to be secretly ordained in the night and the government needed to be re-assured that things weren't as terrible as all that and that at any rate the men's hair would soon grow back, which in fact it did.)

Then when this repatriation thing came up -- because of the beginning of the wet season, when the heavy equipment of Vietnam is of less use against the Khymer Rouge -- neither the Thai government nor the Khymer Rouge leadership inside the camp (this leadership is carefully controlled by the Thai government, of course) informed the refugees that the proposed repatriation was voluntary -- as was insisted by the UNHCR, IRC, etc. -- but simply that they would be repatriated, the refugees didn't know they had any choice in the matter. Therefore the government expected that some 25,000 would go, leaving only those who were too old, too young, or too sick to go. 'Going' meant, of course, not just going back to Cambodia but going back to Khymer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and fighting again, or supporting the fighters. So what was done was that Rob, an Australian fluent in Thai, wrote up a leaflet (in Khymer) informing the people that they couldn't be forced to go back to Cambodia, and he and Bent, a Swedish journalist, began distributing them, having first received the customary clearance from the camp commander.

The commander was immediately besieged by refugees declaring their unwillingness to be repatriated, and when he realized what was happening the commander flew into a rage. He ordered that Rob, Bent, and their leader, Peter, an American minister (and, also, the step-son of a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand), be arrested. Peter was arrested and held in jail five days, during which he was harassed and intimidated and some very heavy charges were laid on his head.

Rob and Bent managed to escape from the camp before being arrested, and made their way to Bangkok, where they hid out. Word came through that the orders at the camp were that if they showed up there they were to be shot on sight. After five days Peter's friends got him out on bail, but everybody was very upset, because now instead of 25,000 Khymer being repatriated from Sae Keo camp only about 8,000 went voluntarily, and fully 17,000 refused to go, all as a result of these leaflets Rob and Bent distributed. They figure they probably saved about 10,000 lives, but the Thai government sees it differently: to them it's a betrayal of Thai security.

Rob, who was the prime mover in this particular incident -- which none of them imagined at the time to be particularly significant or telling -- has been in Thailand for some years (he can even type in Thai, a rare skill for a foreigner) -- has had to leave the country and is now back in Australia. (Previous to the refuges situation he had been working, as a monk, with the hill-tribes in the North, doing social work.) Bent has been cleared and is still in Thailand, willing to go back to the camps if he can. Just before I got to Bangkok all charges against Peter were dropped and he too is now in the clear. The camp commander was fired -- someone's head had to roll -- and just before I left Bangkok Peter was on his way back to the camp to see if he would be allowed back in, and if so what he might still be effective at. I haven't heard anything further about this.

Because of all this, the Thai government has become even more uptight and paranoid than usual about foreigners messing around with their plans, and even though they would acknowledge, if asked about it, that foreigners such as myself are not relevant to their border problems, nevertheless their paranoia extends in all directions and affects the uninvolved as well as the involved. They have established a new rule with regard to foreigners connected with Buddhism: they will grant visa-extensions only to those who are monks.

After doing some running around in Bangkok I learned about all this, for of course they could never explain to me. Rather, the way it worked was that a) the World Fellowship of Buddhists, who had previously sponsored my applications for visa extensions, told me that Immigration no longer accepted sponsorship from them but rather required it non from the Department of Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education. b) the Department of Religious Affairs maintained at first that they were still studying the regulations and would not be able to respond to my application for sponsorship for at least 3 weeks. When I pointed out that my visa expired in 12 days they informed me that I could leave the country and come back in 3 weeks. I told them that by doing so I would lose my Non-Immigrant visa status -- which was no easy thing to come by -- and would have to revert to Tourist status, which limits visits to 2 months. They said it was no problem, and of course it wasn't for them.

After further visits -- during which the Director-General refused to even see me -- they finally admitted that they were not studying the regulations and point-blank refused my application unless I ordained. Actually this was a step forward for me, for an application 'under consideration' is moribund even if its fate is known. Once it's refused then it becomes possible to explore other avenues. c) I then went to Immigration, who told me that they couldn't consider my application unless it had the approval of Religious Affairs. I told them that Religious Affairs had told me that they (R.A.) had been ordered by Immigration not to approve any applications by laypeople. So sorry, they'd like to help, but what can they do? Can't I see that their hands are tied? Who, I asked, has tied their hands by making this rule? The Police Commission, or one of the Police Commissions, or something like that, I was told: I don't understand the various levels of authority that were being discussed (and, perhaps, neither did they, though they knew what they didn't want: me).

Anyway, the upshot of it was that eventually I got to see a big-shot who I'd seen before (on previous visa application sojourns) and who was not unsympathetic to my plight. 'It's because of all the drug addicts,' he told me, as if laypeople living in temples was the source of Thailand's drug industry (the relationship of the government to the drug industry is another interesting topic). But of course he couldn't tell me it was because of the Cambodian situation, or more precisely because of the paranoia that has resulted from the situation, so he told me it was because of drugs. So I appealed to him on the basis of my past record in Thailand and long-time connection with Buddhism, and he looked sympathetic and said he would present the Police Commission, or whatever it is, with my appeal for an exception, and that he couldn't promise anything, but that he would do that, and he gave me a 2-week extension of my visa so that I could stay in the country until the decision was made (instead of having to go to Penang), and so I'm still here but on a very tentative basis.

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