By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand will repatriate thousands of ethnic Hmong to Laos, officials said on Thursday, despite concerns that the asylum-seekers will face political persecution.
The first group of 350 will be repatriated on Thursday, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakee. He said they would go voluntarily, but a Hmong advocate disputed that claim.
An agreement was reached to repatriate a total of about 5,000 Hmong tribal people when Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya met with his Laotian counterpart Tuesday during a visit to the neighboring country, Thani said.
The Hmong are currently living in Huay Nam Khao village in Phetchabun Province, 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Bangkok. Laos has previously denied they are Laotian, describing them as Thailand's problem.
The refugees say they will be persecuted by Laos' communist government if they return because of their Vietnam War-era ties with the United States.
Many Hmong fought under CIA advisers during a so-called "secret war" against Communists in Laos. Thailand has repeatedly asserted that the Hmong are not legitimate refugees and have entered Thailand illegally.
A Chicago-based Hmong advocate, Joe Davy, said some of those to be returned Thursday were going against their will.
"At least five heads of households were reportedly coerced into returning," he said in a statement. The Thai Foreign Ministry denied the allegation.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly expressed concern about the fate of the asylum seekers, noting they have been denied access to the agency to determine their reasons for fleeing.
Kasit said Thailand has offered to pay 1.5 million baht (US $42,800) to Laos to help build shelters for those who return.
A separate group of 153 Hmong asylum seekers who have UN-certified refugee status will be allowed to leave for third countries willing to accept them, Kasit said. They are currently being held at an immigration detention center in Nong Khai Province, 500 kilometers (310 miles) northeast of Bangkok, where they have been since the end of 2006.
In May 2005, a major refugee camp for ethnic Hmong at Wat Tham Krabok in central Thailand was closed after about 15,000 residents were relocated to the United States.