By VICTORIA MILKO and KRISTEN GELINEAU
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The young woman from Myanmar and her family now live amid the tall grasses of a riverbank on the Thai border, trapped in limbo between a country that does not want them and a country whose military could kill them.
Like thousands of others fleeing mounting violence after a military takeover in Myanmar last February, Hay left her village for neighboring Thailand in search of a safe haven that does not exist. Returning to Myanmar would place her and her family at risk of death. And yet that is precisely what Thai authorities — wary of jeopardizing their relationship with Myanmar’s ruling military — tell them to do at least once a week, she says.
“When they told us to go back, we cried and explained why we can’t go back home,” says Hay, who lives in a flimsy tent on the Moei River, which divides the two countries. The Associated Press is withholding Hay’s full name, along with the full names of other refugees in this story, to protect them from retaliation by authorities. “Sometimes we cross back to the Myanmar side of the river. But I have not returned to the village at all.”
Though international refugee laws forbid the return of people to countries where their lives may be in danger, Thailand has nonetheless sent thousands of people who fled escalating violence by Myanmar’s military back home, according to interviews with refugees, aid groups and Thai authorities themselves. That has forced Hay and other Myanmar refugees to ricochet between both sides of the river as the fighting in their home villages rages and briefly recedes.
“It is this game of ping-pong,” says Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium, which has long been the main provider of food, shelter and other support to Myanmar refugees in Thailand. “You can’t keep going back and forth across the border. You’ve got to be somewhere where it’s stable…..And there is absolutely no stability in Myanmar at the moment.”
Since its takeover last year, Myanmar’s military has killed more than 1,700 people, arrested more than 13,000 and systematically tortured children, women and men.
Thailand, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, insists Myanmar’s refugees return to their embattled homeland voluntarily. Thailand also insists it has complied with all international non-refoulement laws, which dictate that people must not be returned to a country where they would face torture, punishment or harm.