Cablegate: Lao Hmong: Thai Army Explains Policy, Signals

DE RUEHBK #0968/01 0871034
O 271034Z MAR 08





E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) Summary. The Royal Thai Army revealed that it will
seek Laotian Government agreement to a proposal to allow
third country resettlement for the 153 Lao Hmong confined in
an immigration jail in Nong Khai, Thailand. The proposal will
be made by the Thai Prime Minster at a bilateral border
meeting in Vientiane on March 30. The Thai position on the
larger group of 7,900 in an army camp in Petchaboon province
remains unchanged: the great majority will be returned,
preferably voluntarily. An initial camp-level vetting by the
RTG identified about eighty percent as economic migrants. The
remainder - including many the RTG acknowledges face danger
if returned to Laos - will be dealt with later. However,
early informal signals indicate they might be permitted third
country resettlement as well. End Summary.

Petchaboon: About 1,000 Resisting Lao Government...
--------------------------------------------- ---

2. (SBU) On March 25, DCM, Political Counselor and RefCoord
met with the Royal Thai Army (RTA) Supreme Command to discuss
policy towards some 7,900 Lao Hmong confined in an army-run
camp in northern Petchaboon, and a smaller group of 153
detained in the immigration jail in Nong Khai. The meeting,
chaired by Deputy Chief of Joint Staff General Ratchakrit
Kanchanawat and attended by a dozen representatives from
various army offices involved in the Lao Hmong issue, was
arranged in response to the Ambassador's March 13 letter to
RTA Supreme Commander General Boonsang Naimpradit,
underscoring our concern about this group. Lt. General Nipat
Thonglek, head of the Thai delegation to the bilateral
Thai-Lao General Border Committee (GBC, the mechanism in
which the Lao Hmong issue has been handled), estimated that
"no more than a thousand" Lao Hmong in Petchaboon have
connections to resistance to the Lao government - past or
present. General Nipat did not respond directly when asked if
this group would be allowed to stay in Thailand or referred
for third country resettlement, stating only that "they will
be considered later."

And the Rest Are Smuggling Victims

3. According to Nipat, the camp-level screening process, just
completed several weeks ago, revealed that "about eighty
percent had been deceived into paying alien smugglers" to
bring them to Thailand in hope of resettlement to the U.S.
The files for all 1,400 families in Petchaboon (only family
heads were interviewed) will be forwarded to a second tier
screening body, chaired by the Deputy National Security
Advisor and including the RTA, MFA and Ministry of Interior,
in Bangkok. The Supreme Command was unable to say when the
second tier review would begin, however, or whether all cases
would be reviewed - or just the 1,000 or so individuals
deemed to have a legitimate fear of return to Laos due to
their connection to the insurgency.

"Voluntary" Repatriation to be the Model

4. (SBU) General Nipat described the February 28
"voluntary" repatriation of 3 Lao Hmong families (consisting
of 11 individuals) from Petchaboon as a "model" for future
returns. RTA staffers insisted all 11 had been interviewed
at the camp level prior to their departure. (Comment: the MFA
told us separately that they had not gone through the
screening as the group had "volunteered" to return early in
the process. End Comment.) Nipat did not anticipate any more
such voluntary returns in the near future, however. Nipat
used an expletive to describe a report by Radio Free Asia
alleging force and aggressive use of dogs during the
repatriation. (Comment: we understand from usually reliable
NGO and UNHCR sources that the report was in fact incorrect.
End Comment.) When the DCM welcomed FM Noppadon's comment
during his recent visit to Washington that all future returns
from Petchaboon would be voluntary only, Gen. Nipat
responded uncomfortably that "we want all people to return of
their own free will", but complained that the anti-return
groups in the Petchaboon camp "have better psych-ops that we
do." Gen. Ratchakrit expressed some concern that excluding
the option for non-voluntary returns would lead to another
situation like the one at Wat Tham Krabok in Central
Thailand, where thousands of Lao-Hmong spent over a decade
(before most were resettled by us.) However, he also
emphasized throughout that the military would only implement

BANGKOK 00000968 002 OF 003

the policy of the government, not make policy itself.

5. (SBU) Nipat described his favorable impressions of Ban Pa
Lak settlement in Laos, where several groups of previous
returnees have been housed. The DCM raised the cases of the
Hmong children and teens deported in 2005; some of the girls
in the group, who subsequently made their way back to the
their families in Petchaboon, reported that they had been
imprisoned and abused in Laos after their deportation. The
five boys in the group had disappeared. This case raised
questioned about the way that some returnees might be treated
by the GoL. Nipat acknowledged that the RTG "cannot
guarantee" how Laos will treat future repatriated Lao Hmong,
but said that the Thai side was trying to monitor the
situation through visits such as his. Nipat revealed that
the February 28 returnees phoned him after 20 days in
Vientiane to complain they had not yet been brought to their
home villages. (Comment: we understand that the group were
actually kept in the border town of Ban Paksan after their
return. End comment.) Nipat claimed he contacted his Lao
army counterpart and the group were subsequently allowed to
return home.

Policy Shift on the Nong Khai Group

6. (SBU) During their initial briefing, the Thai side said
that any Hmong who wanted to be resettled to third countries
would have to first return to Laos, as stipulated by the Lao
government. When pressed, however, Gen. Ratchakrit
acknowledged that it was difficult to imagine a scenario in
which the group with connections to the resistance would
voluntarily return to Laos, even temporarily. We highlighted
particular concerns about the approximately 153
UNHCR-recognized "persons of concern" who have spent over a
year in immigration detention in Nong Khai. Gen. Nipat then
agreed that the Thai side would press for third country
resettlement for the entire group direct from Thailand; they
will raise it at the March 30-31 bilateral meeting of the
General Border Commission in Vientiane. According to Nipat,
the new Prime Minister, who will head the Thai delegation in
his role as Defense Minister, is impatient with the impasse.
The RTG proposal will involve the issuance of Lao travel
documents to the group from the consulate general in nearby
Khon Kaen before referring to third countries. Nipat
believes that a final decision on the RTG proposal can be
made during the Vientiane meeting. The Thai side also agreed
that, if they cannot get the Lao to agree to allow the group
to leave Thailand, then they will work with us to try to
implement improvements in the living conditions for the group
(a proposed USG-funded temporary shelter on the premises of
the Nong Khai IDC has been bogged down by the Thai
bureaucracy for several months.)

Local Army General: Lao Hmong are Different than the Burmese
--------------------------------------------- --------

7. (SBU) On March 20, RefCoord met with the local army
command in direct charge of the Petchaboon camp to press the
points in the Ambassador advocacy letter. Based in
Pitsunalok, not far from Petchaboon, Third Army Commander
Lt.General Sumreng Sivadumrong described the Lao Hmong as
"illegal aliens who must be handled in accordance with Thai
immigration law", but stated that the RTG did not want to
forcibly deport them. According to Sumreng, the combination
of Lao government- constructed villages and future Thai
private investment in factories in Laos will persuade most to
return voluntarily. Sumreng also described visited
Lao-constructed return sites as "good", but that safe return
was the responsibility of the Laotian government, not the
RTG. Gen. Sumreng provided few details of the internal RTG
screening process, but rejected the idea that the more open
vetting mechanism for Burmese asylum seekers - the provincial
admissions boards, set up with UNHCR assistance and
participation - be instituted in Petchaboon: "It's a
completely different issue - there's no fighting in Laos!"
The Lao side has indicated it is able to receive about 200
Lao Hmong a month.

US Hmong Groups Involved in Drug Smuggling

8. However, a key aide to LTG Sumeng told RefCoord later
that the 3rd Army Command recognized "unofficially about ten
percent" of the 7,900 in the Petchaboon would be unable to
return to Laos "because they helped you in Vietnam", and

BANGKOK 00000968 003 OF 003

inquired about resettlement prospects in the US. The aide
claimed that many in the Petchaboon group were interested in
returning to Laos but were intimidated by anti-return
"gangsters", who in turn were influenced by US-based Lao
Hmong groups. According to the army colonel, who is in charge
of intelligence in the Third Army Command, those US-based
groups were involved in drug trafficking and encouraged
resettlement in the US to assist their illicit business.


9. (SBU) The possible RTG shift in stance on the 153 Lao
Hmong confined in the Nong Khai immigration jail is as
unexpected as it is welcome. Previously, we were told the
Nong Khai issue would be handled only after the entire
Petchaboon group was repatriated, a process that could take
more than a year. Although it is by no means a done deal -
we believe the Thais will not allow third country
resettlement for the group if the Laotian government objects
- we should be ready to act quickly to process the 17
cases/76 people referred to the US resettlement program by
UNHCR at the end of 2006. (The remainder have been referred
to Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.) We have also
asked UNHCR to review the other cases to see if there are any
with US-resident relatives who would benefit from the Kyl
Amendment changes, and to refer those to the US as well. To
this end, final implementation instructions from USCIS on the
new law are needed to provide to UNHCR.

© Scoop Media

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