PHETCHABUN, Thailand — Thailand sent army troops with shields and batons to evict some 4,000 ethnic Hmong from a refugee camp today and send them back to Laos despite concerns they will be persecuted by the Laotian government.
The Thai government claims most of the Hmong are economic migrants who entered the country illegally and have no claims to refugee status, and says it has assurances from Laos that the Hmong will be well-treated.
Hmong tribe members fought during the Vietnam War era on the side of a pro-American government in Laos before it fell to the communists in 1975, and the Hmong claim they have been persecuted since.
The Thai army's coordinator for the operation, Col. Thana Charuwat, said 5,000 soldiers, officials and civilian volunteers were involved in the eviction. He said the troops carried no firearms and that their shields and batons met international standards for dealing with situations in which people are being moved against their will.
Two dozen trucks with about 20 soldiers each could be seen heading toward the refugee camp early today. A large contingent of troops already were inside the sealed-off camp. Journalists were barred from the camp and were allowed no closer than a press center about seven miles away.
The army would ask the Hmong to go voluntarily and hoped the operation would be completed within 24 hours, Thana said. The Hmong were to be put on buses going to the Thai border town of Nong Khai, and then across to Laos, heading to the Paksane district in the central province of Bolikhamsai, Thana said.
There was no resistance about an hour into the operation, Thana said.
Human rights groups expressed fear that the Hmong would resist, as they have during smaller-scale repatriations, and that the eviction could turn violent.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thai representative for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said mobile phone signals inside the camp had been jammed. Soldiers, police and other security personnel are on standby near the camp with body armor, the group said.
"It never happens smoothly," Sunai said. "If the Hmong resist it and there is an eruption of violence, the army may react in full force."
The United States and human rights groups have said some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status and should not be sent back. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that to repatriate such people would "imperil the well-being of many individuals" and violate international principles.
Laos has in the past denied the Hmong are Lao citizens, describing them as Thailand's problem, though Bangkok says Laos has agreed to take this group back.
"We have assurances from the top level of Laos that these people will be safe and sound," Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.