Chinese dissident Hu Junxiong has taken on an unexpected and unpaid job during his years in exile in Thailand – maintaining a monument to his fellow Chinese who died while part of the brutal forced labor effort under the Japanese army to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi.
The veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, which ended in the bloody Tiananmen massacre of June 4 in Beijing, said he prefers to keep a low profile since arriving in Bangkok in 2015 and gaining official refugee status granted by the United Nations.
While the U.N. refugee agency can designate somebody a refugee if they apply for the status in Thailand, they don’t always follow up by offering them resettlement, leaving an unknown number of Chinese nationals vulnerable to detention and forcible repatriation, should the Thai authorities choose to do Beijing a favor and detain them.
“At the beginning of the 21st century, a refugee from mainland China bought a piece of land here and built a memorial cemetery, but he was relatively old, and the cemetery was neglected,” Hu told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview. “I am friends with him, so I took the initiative to manage and maintain the place, and have stayed here ever since.”
“I help him with construction work, weeding and trimming trees,” said Hu, 60, who hails from the central Chinese province of Hubei.
The memorial site isn’t far from the notorious bridge 277 of the Burma-Thailand Railway, which spans the winding Khwae Noi River at Kanchanaburi.
Idyllic spot belying the horrors
Today, the area is home to a number of memorial gardens to the victims of forced labor under extreme conditions under the Japanese army, and offers a tourist train ride across the bridge, with cafes and restaurants to cater overlooking the banks of the river.
“It’s a charming, idyllic spot, belying the intense horror and suffering the men who built it went through,” according to a description on the website of the Commonwealth Graves Foundation.
It said some 60,000 or so of those who died there were Allied prisoners of war, including British, Australian, Dutch and some American troops, alongside more than 200,000 civilian Chinese, Malayan, Burmese, Thais and Indonesians laborers who were pressed into service.
“They would work in appalling conditions, given minuscule amounts of food, snatches of sleep, and little to no medical treatment,” the guide said, adding that many workers died of disease, others from torture and cruel forms of assault meted out by Japanese soldiers.
Harassed by immigration officials
For Hu, the area offers the hope of some respite from the constant fear of detention and harassment by officials. Yet, the police have still been out to his chosen home to ask questions, he said.
“I’ve found that so many people are suspicious over the past few years; it never stops,” Hu said. “Sometimes they even come over here to try to find fault with me.”
“The worst time was when officials from the Thai immigration bureau came over here to harass me twice,” he said. “Each time, they drove over in a convoy or cars, five or six of them.”
“Luckily for me, they decided not to arrest me in the end because I hadn’t broken the law.”
He said he is fairly sure that the Thai authorities act on requests from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
“They knew quite a lot about my sources of income,” Hu said. “I said my relatives in mainland China were funding me and he asked me their names.”
“It’s clear that only the CCP would care about that. [The Chinese authorities] keep texting my friends and relatives, getting them to persuade me to go back of my own free will, and promising me a pension and other financial assistance,” he said.
In more danger now, not less
But Hu believes he and other Chinese refugees in Thailand are in more danger from Beijing these days, not less, citing the recent detention of fellow refugee Li Nanfei after he staged a lone protest against President Xi Jinping in Bangkok.
Hu has plenty of reason to fear repatriation. Many Chinese refugees in Thailand have said they are effectively on the run, constantly moving around in a bid to evade arrest and deportation on illegal immigration charges, activists have told RFA.
In November 2022, Adiyaa, an ethnic Mongolian Chinese national who fled the country after his involvement in 2020 protests over a ban on Mongolian-medium teaching in schools, reported being held by Chinese state security police in Bangkok.
In 2019, Thai police detained two Chinese refugees — Jia Huajiang and Liu Xuehong — who had earlier helped jailed rights website founder Huang Qi before fleeing the country.
And in 2018, Thailand-based dissident Wu Yuhua began a hunger strike in a Thai immigration detention center to stave off her forced repatriation to China after Bangkok police detained her and her husband Yang Chong.
In November 2015, Chinese asylum-seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country, were handed back to Chinese authorities by Thailand in a move that drew strong criticism from the United Nations. They were jailed for “subversion” in 2018.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.