Laura Bush is going to visit Karen refugee camps and facilities when she and her husband visit Thailand on Wednesday and Thursday. Mr Bush, whom she calls George, is the president of the United States.
Among the places the first lady is expected to visit are Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot district and Mae La, the Karen refugee camp near the Thai-Burmese border which houses some 60,000 refugees…
A source close to provincial authorities said that more than 100 US security officers have already arrived in Mae Sot to map out security measures for the first lady.
The refugee trip is nothing new for a US first lady. The most famous and frequently recalled visit was by Rosalynn Carter in 1979 when she went along to Khmer camps in Thailand after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. At the time, Thailand was the only country truly involved in refugee care.
Her first stop was Sakaew, a center housing Cambodians 40 miles from the border. Rosalynn spent two hours at the camp, where more than 35,000 refugees were packed in makeshift lean-tos made of cloth, woven fiber and plastic sheeting spread out over 33 acres of clay like soil. During a briefing in a tent, she was told that nearly 1,000 of the refugees were seriously ill and that upwards of 400 people had died there since the camp had been opened just two weeks before.
The Mae Sot visit allows First Lady Laura Bush to emphasise up close and personal what her husband will be stressing in his talks in Bangkok: The US is deeply interested in Burma, where one of the world’s most repressive and potentially dangerous regimes keeps millions enslaved, in poverty and fearful. Thousands of Karen refugees have already headed for the United States in yet another huge refugee programme.
Unfortunately the most endangered and pitiful refugees in Thailand are not the Karen of Burma, who at least are being cared for after escaping the dictatorship. Rather, the Hmong from Laos are treated with disdain in Thailand, to say the least, and are badly mistreated at home. Thai officials have repatriated thousands of Hmong against their will and, some say, against all humanitarian considerations.
Mrs Bush won’t be visiting any Hmong, but 21 members of the US Congress have urged their government to move to protect them from, at least, being sent back to Laos against their will.
The lawmakers said it is imperative that the forced removals be stopped and that the Thai government give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the Hmong.
It’s not right to say that Mrs Bush is going to see the “wrong refugees”. But Mr Bush is not going to change the horrible Thai or Asean policy enabling the Burmese dictators. So there are many who hope that amidst all the hype over Burma, the US president might work in a word or three on behalf of the Hmong.