News this week that the Thai government would begin forcibly repatriating some 4,000 Hmong back to Laos was greeted by condemnations from the UN, the United States, and various human rights organizations. With good reason: Laos has a poor record of human rights abuses against the Hmong, many of whom fought with the United States in the Vietnam War, and the Thai government admitted, even as it was forcing the Hmong back, that it feared for the safety of some in the group who were more overtly political.
The current Thai government hasn’t exactly set a high standard for refugee protection – when a group of Burmese Rohingya Muslims set out to sea, fleeing harsh repression, the Thai navy allegedly intercepted their boats and cast them adrift, with little food or water. Still, the Hmong deportation rises to another level, since, as I learned from many U.S. officials and even some Thais, a solution could have been worked out that would have allowed many or all of these Hmong to be resettled in the United States.
There’s a lesson here for the United States. Hard on the heels of Cambodia’s decision to send a group of Uighurs back to China, another decision condemned by many Western democracies and the UN, Thailand’s move points up the diminished power of the United States in the region, after years of neglect of Southeast Asia by Washington. During the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the United States had far more influence in Southeast Asia, Washington was able to convince the Thais, who historically have been loathe to house any refugees, to at least allow Lao, Hmong, and Cambodians fleeing war to stay in Thailand until a home could be found for them. But these days it’s simply much easier for countries in the region to thumb their noses at the United States – since China provides an alternative to American power, the United States’ own moral standing has been degraded so far that it’s debatable whether Obama can restore it, and leaders like Thai Prime Minister Abhisit no longer will sacrifice their natural impulses and domestic constituencies to win Washington’s favor. (Though I’ve never seen a scientific survey, I’m sure that if a poll were taken most Thais would support deporting the Hmong back to Laos.) Unfortunately, the region’s leaders’ natural impulses and domestic constituencies don’t exactly provide much comfort to the oppressed.