The Thai army in March destroyed a footbridge used by refugees fleeing attacks in eastern Myanmar, a human rights group alleged this week, but the military claimed Wednesday that it had dismantled the structure to stop cross-border crime.
On Tuesday, Fortify Rights released video footage that shows uniformed soldiers dismantling the small footbridge made of bamboo over the Wa Le (also known as the Waw Lay) River, a tributary of the Moei River, at the Thai-Myanmar frontier. The makeshift walkway connected Thailand’s Tak Province with Myanmar’s Karen State, where the junta’s forces have allegedly killed civilians in recent months amid nationwide post-coup turmoil.
In a statement, the Bangkok-based group called on the Thai government “to investigate the recent destruction by its soldiers of a makeshift cross-border footbridge used by refugees fleeing deadly attacks in eastern Myanmar.”
Thai authorities should also “ensure any investigation into the situation on the border is aimed at protecting refugee rights, not further violating them,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “Arbitrary arrests and the destruction of this footbridge demand urgent attention.”
The group confirmed that the video was filmed two months ago, adding it had obtained the 16-minute clip filed from the Myanmar side of the border and uploaded a shorter clip to YouTube.
In the video, people speaking a Karen language and a crying infant child can be heard off-camera. In another clip from the video, a soldier asks, “What are you filming, [Expletive]. You want to die?”
The exact date and time for when the footage was filmed were on file with Fortify Rights, the group said.
“Sources familiar with the bridge and the area told Fortify Rights that Myanmar refugees, especially children and older people, used the bridge to flee violence and persecution and that informal humanitarian workers used it to transport lifesaving aid from Thailand to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar,” it said.
On Wednesday, the Thai army’s regional command, the 3rd Army Area, responded to the allegations made by Fortify Rights and the video, which the group had circulated through social media.
“The video clip depicting Thai soldiers breaking off a cross-border bamboo bridge was taken before the fighting inside of Myanmar flared up, and the bridge was illegal,” the army’s regional command said in a statement.
“The bridge demolition has nothing to do with the migration of displaced persons … it was conducted following an order by the Tak border authorities to prevent illegal groups from doing their criminal activities,” the statement said, without saying what these criminal activities were.
The statement claimed that the bamboo bridge had been illegally constructed and was destroyed before fighting with Karen rebels flared.
“At that time, there was no fighting between Myanmar soldiers and ethnic minority force, and there were no displaced people,” it said.
Thailand shares a long history and 2,400-km (1,500-mile) border with Myanmar. The military said Thailand was delivering humanitarian aid to more than 1,500 Myanmar displaced people in four camps in Um Phang district.
The Karen have been crossing the border since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup when Burmese Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing toppled the country’s democratically elected government, threw its civilian leaders in jail, and then turned military forces and police on his own people who have been protesting the junta’s actions.
The Myanmar military has launched attacks throughout the country, including regions along the Thai frontier.
Government security forces have killed at least 1,821 civilians – many of them pro-democracy protesters – throughout Myanmar since the coup happened, according to a tally compiled by the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Across the border, Thai authorities have been accused of forcing thousands of refugees to return to Myanmar after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha ordered them to prevent “illegal immigration.”
Fortify Rights said it obtained other video footage from Jan. 25, before the Thai soldiers allegedly destroyed the footbridge. The video shows at least 45 people, including women and children using the footbridge or lining up to cross the river.
The group also alleged that Thai authorities had arbitrarily arrested and extorted refugees in the border town of Mae Sot. Fortify Rights described how refugees were forced to pay officials to avoid being arrested.
“Since February 2022, Fortify Rights interviewed 15 Myanmar refugees on the Thailand-Myanmar border, including seven women, as well as three U.N. officials and four humanitarian aid workers in Thailand,” the statement said.
“[F]irsthand testimonies collected by Fortify Rights reveal how Thai authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained, and allegedly extorted money from Myanmar refugees within the last year.”
It also noted that on April 8, the Associated Press reported that “police cards” were sold in Mae Sot through middlemen for an average monthly cost of 350 baht (U.S. $10). The refugees made the purchases under the belief the cards would “help them avoid arrest.”
“The Thai government should create a formal nationwide system to issue identification cards to refugees that provide genuine protection,” Smith said in the release. “Such a process would help prevent extortion and other abuses and provide critical information on new arrivals to Thailand.”
On Wednesday, Thai government authorities did not immediately respond to BenarNews’ request for comment – but Thai police announced last month that they would investigate the scheme.
Activists, meanwhile, said Thailand should treat the refugees with respect.
The Thai military should be more responsible for the refugees, said the person who coordinates the Burma Concern Project at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
“I feel bad that the military is giving a terrible reason like this. We have seen this happen again and again,” said Thanawat, who goes by one name.
“Even though we see some attempt to aid the refugees, behind the scenes, they are also pushing them back the refugees by not welcoming them like this.”
According to another activist, the Thai government did not implement United Nations-supported procedures to deal with the refugees.
“They have always let the security agencies take care of the refugees by pushing them back,” said Pornsuk Kerdsawang of the Friends without Borders Foundation.
He said the government should allow the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to assist the refugees instead of letting the security forces take charge.
“The fear that the refugees will stay in the country permanently should not be an issue because the refugees will figure their own way,” he told BenarNews.
Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report by for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.