Thailand has expelled 163 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers in the first major repatriation since the United States charged one of their tribal leaders with planning an insurrection in Laos, Thai and Lao officials said.
The officials, as well as Hmong rights activists, said the 163 who were deported Saturday had been held for illegal immigration at four police stations near a large Hmong refugee settlement in Thailand’s Phetchabun province, 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of the capital, Bangkok.
The Hmong claim they are persecuted by the Lao government, which distrusts the tribal group because it sided with a pro-American government against the communists during the Vietnam War.
They say they fear for their safety if forced back to Laos.
Some 8,000 other Hmong at the Huay Nam Khao camp remain there, even though the Thai government also considers them illegal immigrants and subject to deportation.
Most of those expelled Saturday had been caught trying to get into the refugee camp in the past couple of years.
However, a group that lobbies for the rights of the Hmong, the California-based Fact Finding Commission, said sources in Huay Nam Khao “reported beatings and the use of tear gas and stun guns by the Thai military” in the repatriation process.
The group, whose information has been reliable in the past, said when several Hmong began to fear on Wednesday that they would be repatriated, two of them—Lee Pao Vang and Wa Meng Lee—tried to kill themselves by taking poison, and that an unconfirmed report said one of them subsequently died.
More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled to Thailand after the communist takeover. Most later resettled in the United States and elsewhere, but thousands of others stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.
Many lingered in Thai refugee camps. In May 2005, the last major camp was closed, and in what was supposed to be the final big movement of Hmong refugees, some 15,000 were relocated to the United States.