Al Jazeera TV: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Action NOW.

As we have reported in previous posts here and here, once again the issue of the former political prisoners forced to live a perilous life as stateless people on the Thai-Burma border needs urgent attention from the UNHCR now more than ever before. We have been working with the former political prisoners on the border now for a long time on this issue and our close friends, Aye Min Soe and Thiha, have appeared in an interview on Al-Jazeera about this issue:

The Best Friend have recently posted some of the documentation made available by the former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border to the public to highlight this issue – Please download it and help us with this urgent issue.

We will be meeting with a number of human rights organisations in the coming weeks to raise this issue and fight to ensure that no-one is sent home after this sham election is done with. The political landscape will not be conducive to closing the camps and sending people home. Not now, not after the election, not ever until this regime is dealt with. Rhetoric from ASEAN and Thailand in contrast to this fact is exactly that. Rhetoric.

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PRESS RELEASE: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Protection

An issue that we have been working on for some time with the former political prisoners living in Mae Sot and the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border is now being accelerated as the date for the elections has been announced, bringing with it the very real threat of the former political prisoners being returned to Burma. You can read previous posts here and here.

Below is the Press Release letter issued by the former political prisoners to Human Rights organisations across the world. We are part of the working group working very hard on this issue so please contact me directly if you can be of assistance. enigmaimages@gmail.com

PRESS RELEASE

The Ex-Political Prisoners of Burma have joined together in an unprecedented call for help from the international community ahead of the elections in Burma set to be held on November 7. The Ex-Political Prisoners, now living in camps on the Thai Burma border,  fear forced repatriation from Thailand to Burma after the election and are desperately seeking assistance that is currently unavailable from the UNHCR for a safe haven,  if only temporary, in a third country.

The Ex-Political Prisoners currently have limited access to UNHCR to claim refugee status due to policy agreements between UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government.

The fear is that the Thai Government could repatriate all refugees back to Burma after the November 7 elections on the basis that the elections have created a legitimate Government in Burma. The Ex-Political Prisoners claim that the election will be a sham. Many potential candidates have been banned and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

The elections will change nothing, they claim, but simply install the junta under false pretences for a number of years to come. During this period any repatriated ex-political prisoners fear that the Junta will again persecute them.

“There are multiple examples of forced repatriation from Thailand, a violation of the Principle of Non-Refoulement which is a cornerstone of International Human Rights Law.  The Royal Thai Government has clearly stated its intention of repatriating Burmese asylum seekers following the ‘democratic election’ in Burma.  Our fears are well founded and should we be forced to return, with no recognition from UNHCR, we face certain imprisonment or death,” the ex political prisoners said in a signed letter to human rights organizations around the world.

NOTE TO THE EDITOR: We plead for your help.  Please publish the attached letter or an article exploring our situation so that the general public is aware of the situation we face. Without help from the international community we have no further options.  We have sent this letter to a number of Human Rights Lawyers and Human Rights Organizations in the hope of gaining legal representation.  Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact our spokesperson Aye Min Soe , also an Ex-Political Prisoner, at andrewsaisai@gmail.com (ph +66822259968).

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Thailand Day 15: Mae Sot

In trying to make the most of this extra time here on the border it just constantly seems that there is never enough time. Meetings that just never seem to happen meaning that my plans to get to Chiang Mai and catch up with Rachel, and friends at Chiang Mai and DVB are likely to be put on the back burner again and may not happen at all this time which is a shame. The week has been busy with re-editing and re-shooting mixed with plenty of “R ‘n’ R” mostly over at Generation Wave’s HQ where I’ve been staying for a bit. So far this week I’ve retaken a number of portraits and yesterday and today once again we managed to do U Sandawbartha (16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Moe Myint (12 years in Insein prison on 4 occasions) and Dr Tun Thu (8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Dr Tun Thu

Unfortunately Dr Tun Thu has been suffering from what is possibly a serious case of post traumatic stress syndrome due to his time as a political prisoner. Last year when I met him he was fit and healthy and working as a doctor in the Mae Tao clinic. In the months in-between I was very sad to learn of his failing mental health and he appears to have suffered very badly indeed. But meeting him now it would actually appear that he is hopefully turning the corner. One can’t begin to imagine how the mind has suffered through years of torture and abuse as a political prisoner. The body can show you the scars of pain but it’s what’s inside that can so often be so much more painful. There is no support system for former political prisoners other than their friends and colleagues here on the border. But there is possibly hope that comes in the form of the ‘Borderline Project‘ for former political prisoners which is a proposal to form a safe house, training and rehabilitation project here in Mae Sot and is being set up by my friend Thiha and Markus Baude. It is an excellent proposal and I can only hope that they are successful in their search for funding… I know how difficult that is (not one penny funding received yet for this project – ed). Also I’ve been busy with more UNHCR work today and will continue tomorrow as well as interviews need translating and more need to be taken… but still no response to my requests for a meeting with the UNHCR office themselves.

Other news I learn today is about Human Rights Watch plans to step up their political prisoner campaign “2100 by 2010“. They will be holding an exhibition (installation) in Grand Central Station in New York in June possibly around Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. It looks really impressive and will hopefully keep up the awareness in the public domain – it certainly should being in one of the worlds busiest train stations. They have arranged for one of the world’s top portrait photographers Platon to come and photograph former political prisoners to be part of this campaign. Nice idea… wonder where that came from? I had meetings with HRW back in December 2009 about my work linking with their campaign but despite initial meetings outlining how ideal it was unfortunately nothing came of it… and here they now have one of the world’s top portrait photographers instead. That’s just life, but I am more pleased that one of the worlds top photographers is showing an interest in Burma and in particular political prisoners. I for one can’t wait to see his pictures and I only hope he does my friends justice…

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You Are NOT a Refugee… You Are a Political Prisoner

Possibly the biggest issue as well as danger faced by former political prisoners when they flee Burma and arrive in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border is that they are not recognised as a refugee. In essence this means that they are not safe and their lives are in great danger as they can be returned to Burma at any moment if caught by the Thai authorities. With many Burmese agents, informers and spies on the border area there is a very clear and present danger for all those who arrive here. Having spent years in prison for their political beliefs and activities, they manage to flee the country at great risk, arrive in the assumed free outside world where they are not free or safe. They become stateless people. They are still prisoners.

Throughout our time here on the Thai-Burma border we have been documenting the lives, current situations and dangers that the former political prisoners face upon fleeing Burma and arriving here in Thailand. Some make their way into either Umpiem Mai or Nupo refugee camps – not through official channels of course because you see these people aren’t seen as refugees and therefore can’t be given the protection that the camps have to offer (they have to make their own way there… you work it out). Others are left to survive in safe houses with colleagues who have also made the treacherous journey in fleeing Burma over the past years. The UNHCR of course state that their hands are tied by Thailand’s own policy on refugees because it hasn’t signed up to the 1951 Geneva Refugee convention (see below). Unfortunately they wouldn’t answer my calls to meet to discuss this issue. But when you can prove that you have been in prison for your political activities because not only do you have your release card from jail but also your ICRC certificate from when they visited you in prison and documented you and gave you a ‘Special Detainee’ number, when you can prove without doubt your past background as an activist, the torture you have suffered at the hands of the military regime, the years you have spent in Burma’s gulags and therefore without doubt the very real threat to your safety if you are returned to Burma then surely you are a refugee? Clearly the UNHCR and Thailand think differently as more than 100 former political prisoners are living in fear each day that they may be returned at any moment to the SPDC who you can be damned sure know exactly who these people are. It’s why they jailed them in the first place. And what of the third countries that are waiting to take these people who wish to resettle? The USA is leading the way… that was until they put all cases on hold.

Take this for an example (a very brief summary and you can read more on a previous post of Nupo refugee camp). A former MP for the National League for Democracy who spent 2 years in Insein prison in 1990 having been charged with high treason. He meets a US diplomat in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound with her in 1995. He flees Burma to Thailand. He later meets the same US diplomat when he is working for the NCUB. People therefore know who this man is – he is an MP from the NLD who was jailed because of exactly that reason. His health is failing due to the torture he suffered when he was being interrogated in Burma. He has to stop working. His son flees Burma to be with him. They make their way into Nupo refugee camp to try to get resettlement to a third country – he is fast tracked by the UNHCR (probably because no-one wants to have the death of someone of his stature on their hands). But then the US Department of Homeland Security decides to put his case on hold. No-one knows why. In the meantime in a bizarre twist of fate, his perfectly healthy son is resettled to the USA. He is still in Nupo refugee camp some 2 years later – still on hold and unable to re-apply to another country until the US decides his fate. There can surely be no doubt whatsoever as to who he is because after all one of their diplomats met him with Aung San Suu Kyi? Then there’s the story of the former political prisoner resettled to the UK yet his wife and young child are still stuck in a refugee camp waiting and praying that one day they will be able to join him and start to live their life… but she is being refused resettlement. Then there is the story of the former political prisoner in a refugee camp who complained about the amount of food rations he and his colleagues were receiving. He was taken away at night into the forest to be shot. Thankfully his colleagues found out in time and he was returned to camp. These are just some of the stories and unfortunately there are hundreds more.

So the question is what’s going on… not just with these cases but with policy in general with regards to political refugees fleeing Burma?

We are busy working with NGO’s and other contacts on highlighting the situation faced by former political prisoners upon fleeing Burma and will report back soon as our work progresses. We hope to be able to present our findings to the British Government.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention is the foundation of international protection of refugees. It defines a refugee as someone outside their own country unable or unwilling to return owning to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It sets out the kind of legal protection, other assistance and social rights a refugee should receive from the 141 states that are now party to the Convention. It was the first international agreement that spelled out a set of basic human rights that should be at least equivalent to freedoms enjoyed by foreign nationals living legally in a given country and, in many cases, those of citizens of that state. These include freedom of religion and movement, and the right to work, education and accessibility to travel documents. A key provision stipulates that refugees should not be returned to a country where they fear persecution. It also spells out people or groups of people who are not covered by the Convention. For more information, see www.unhcr.ch/1951convention/51qanda.html

As Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees they are able to implement their own criteria for assessing if someone is in genuine need of protection. To date the guidelines that have been used have been very narrow and only include fleeing fighting. The argument put forward by the Thai authorities for not accepting new arrivals is that the people who are seeking shelter are not fleeing fighting but looking for resettlement opportunities.

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