Thailand’s prime minister denied Tuesday that his country’s security forces forced villagers back to Myanmar who had fled from military airstrikes, saying they returned home on their own accord.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, nevertheless, said his country is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting, as it has done many times for decades. His comments came a day after humanitarian groups said Thailand has been sending back some of the thousands of people who have fled a series of air attacks by Myanmar’s military.
“There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area. When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force,” Prayuth told reporters.
“We won’t push them back,” he said. ’If they are having fighting, how can we do so? But if they don’t have any fighting at the moment, can they go back first?”
The governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, where as many as 3,000 refugees had sought shelter, said later that those still on Thai soil were expected to return to their own country in a day or two.
The weekend attacks, which sent ethnic Karen people to seek safety in Thailand, were another escalation in the violent crackdown by Myanmar’s junta on protests against its Feb. 1 takeover.
At least 510 protesters have been killed since the coup, according to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which says the actual toll is likely much higher. It says 2,574 people have been detained.
Protests continued Tuesday despite the deaths of more than 100 people on Saturday alone.
Engineers, teachers and students from the technology university in the southern city of Dawei marched without incident.
The number of protesters killed in the city rose to eight with the announcement of the death of a teenager who was shot by soldiers on Saturday as he rode a motorbike with two friends. According to local media, a hospital certificate attributed his death to “serious injuries as he fell from a motorbike.”
Medical workers in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city, honored three of their colleagues who have been killed by security forces. The two doctors and a nurse were remembered in a simple ceremony in front of a banner with their photographs and the words “Rest In Power.”
At a cemetery in the biggest city, Yangon, three families gave their last farewells to relatives killed Monday in a night of chaos in the South Dagon neighborhood. Residents said police and soldiers moved through the streets firing randomly with live ammunition.