BANGKOK -- Myanmar's neighbors have been stepping up measures to keep out Burmese fleeing the unrest that has gripped the nation since the military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1.
Countries like Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia are facing a dilemma: If they accept the huge numbers of asylum-seekers from Myanmar, their already strained public finances will be further burdened, but if they turn away the displaced people, they will come under international criticism. The coronavirus pandemic further compounds the problem as governments worry that foreigners will carry the disease with them and spread it locally.
At least 250 people, largely protesters against the coup, have been killed in Myanmar and over 2,600 detained as of March 21. As the military and police crackdown intensifies, a growing number of citizens are fleeing the country to escape from being arrested or suppressed.
Thailand, which shares a 2,000 km border with Myanmar, has stepped up efforts to tighten border control and security. Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said on Friday people from Myanmar have already been arriving in areas along the border.
The Thai government agency responsible for handling the pandemic posted on Facebook on March 17 that worries about Myanmar's high infection rate has caused Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to order the military to guard the border more vigilantly to prevent Burmese from coming over. This contradicts Myanmar's own report that it has around a dozen COVID-19 new cases on a weekly average, but the claims from both sides are hard to verify due to the political turmoil.
Early in March, army chief General Narongphan Jitkaewthae visited a province along the border and put the military on alert, citing the need to take measures against the pandemic.
Human Rights Watch recently criticized the Thai government for intercepting and sending back a group of Myanmar nationals as they were crossing the border.
The army has set up facilities to accommodate asylum-seekers in the southern provinces of Ranong and Chumphon but the commander stressed on March 19 that these are temporary shelters for humanitarian aid and not refugee camps.
Bangladesh is also bolstering border security measures. In 2017, a brutal military campaign to drive out the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State had already sent over 700,000 displaced into Bangladesh. Since then, Bangladesh had worked with Myanmar to send some of these refugees back home, although many had refused to budge on fears about their safety.
Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen recently told a local newspaper that the country was loath to accept more refugees, adding that other countries should open their doors to Rohingya instead.
Meanwhile, late Monday, a fire ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh near the southeastern town of Cox's Bazar. The United Nations refugee agency said the following day that at least 15 people had died in the fire, while at least 400 are missing.
India's ministry of home affairs has asked four northeastern states along the border with Myanmar to stem any influx, according to local newspaper Hindustan Times.
Huge numbers also fled Myanmar in the 1990s, escaping the brutal rule of the previous junta. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the vast majority of refugees from Myanmar are Rohingya from Rakhine State, 860,000 of whom are now in Bangladesh.
Some 90,000 are in Thailand and another 30,000 in Malaysia. As of mid-2020, around 1 million Myanmar nationals were regarded by the UNHCR as refugees, making the country the fifth-largest source of displaced people.
Even before the junta seized power in February, COVID-19 had already taken a heavy economic and social toll in neighboring countries. In June 2020, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the country could no longer take in refugees because "our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic."
On Feb. 23, Malaysia used three Myanmar navy ships to send back 1,086 Myanmar nationals who had entered the country before the coup. Malaysia claimed they were illegal immigrants and not Rohingya refugees or asylum-seekers, and that "all of those returned had agreed to be sent back voluntarily."
Amnesty International denounced Malaysia's decision to deport the Myanmar nationals as "inhumane and devastating." The group said, "The options for people and their families cannot be between indefinite detention or putting their lives at risk by returning to a possibly dangerous situation."
Reuters reports that Malaysia decided on Wednesday to postpone the second batch of planned deportations to Myanmar.
Myanmar has asked India to return several police officers who crossed the border seeking refuge after refusing to carry out orders to fire at protesters. New Delhi has yet to make the decision on how to respond. Human Rights Watch has called on India to halt any plans to deport Rohingya and others back to Myanmar "where they would be at risk from its oppressive military junta."
Additional reporting by Moyuru Baba in New Delhi, Akira Hayakawa in Mumbai and Takashi Nakano in Singapore