Thailand expelled 163 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers on Saturday, in the first major repatriation since the United States charged one of their tribal leaders with planning an insurrection in Laos, Thai and Lao officials said.
The officials, as well as Hmong rights activists, said the 163 who were deported had been held for illegal immigration at four police stations near a large Hmong refugee settlement in Thailand's Phetchabun province, 185 miles north of the capital, Bangkok.
The asylum-seekers were taken from their cells Friday night and driven to the northeastern Thai city of Nong Khai before being sent back to Laos Saturday morning.
One of the most prominent Hmong exiles, former guerrilla leader Vang Pao, was charged in U.S. federal court Monday with plotting a violent overthrow of Laos' communist government.
Tharit Charungvat, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry, said the expulsions were not related to the charges against Vang Pao.
"There is no link to this case whatever. ... It's the policy to send back illegal immigrants, that's all," he said.
The Hmong claim they are persecuted by the Lao government, which distrusts the tribal group because it sided with a pro-American government against the communists during the Vietnam War.
They say they fear for their safety if forced back to Laos.
In March, Amnesty International drew attention to the plight of thousands of Hmong tribespeople still in Laos, whom it asserted are being hunted down in the jungles by the country's communist regime — an allegation denied by the government.
Thai police in Phetchabun confirmed that the 163 Hmong who had been in their custody had been moved out Friday night. However, some 8,000 other Hmong at the Huay Nam Khao camp remain there, even though the Thai government also considers them illegal immigrants and subject to deportation.
Most of those expelled Saturday had been caught trying to get into the refugee camp in the past couple of years.
A Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yong Chanthalansy, confirmed by phone from the Lao capital Vientiane that about 160 Hmong were sent back to Laos.
"We had a handover ceremony this morning at the border," he said, adding that it was not a forced repatriation and the handover was peaceful. Tharit, the Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, also said the deportation took place without resistance.
However, a group that lobbies for the rights of the Hmong, the California-based Fact Finding Commission, claimed that sources in Huay Nam Khao "reported beatings and the use of tear gas and stun guns by the Thai military" in the repatriation process.
The group, whose information has proven to be reliable in the past, said when several Hmong began to fear on Wednesday that they would be repatriated, two of them — Lee Pao Vang, 37, and Wa Meng Lee, 35 — tried to kill themselves by taking poison, and that an unconfirmed report said one of them subsequently died.
Kitty McKinsey, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Thailand, said her office had not been officially informed of the deportations, and she would not comment.
Police Lt. Boonlert Saejumsilpa of Kao Kho police station — which had been holding 39 Hmong — said they had transferred the detainees to the immigration police in Nong Khai Thursday night to be sent back to Laos.
"These are the people who came in illegally recently and we have been taking care of them for almost a year now, without a budget allocated for it. It has become a big burden," he said in a telephone interview. "If we don't do this, there will be thousands more coming in and we won't be able to take care of them."
The little-publicized plight of the Hmong was highlighted recently with the arrest in California of Vang Pao, now 77, who led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos.
He emigrated to the U.S. in about 1975 and is generally acknowledged as the leader of the Hmong community there. Seven other prominent members of the Hmong community were arrested with him.
More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, managed to flee into Thailand after the communist takeover. Most later resettled in the United States and elsewhere, but thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.
Many lingered in Thai refugee camps. In May 2005, the last major camp was closed, and in what was supposed to be the final big movement of Hmong refugees, some 15,000 were relocated to the United States.
But thousands more slipped through the cracks, coming here to join the unofficial refugee settlement at Huay Nam Khao.