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 that ended in the bloody June 4 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing said he prefers to keep a low profile since he arrived in Bangkok in 2015 and was granted official refugee status by the United Nations.
While UNHCR can designate someone as a refugee if they apply for status in Thailand, they do not always follow through by offering them resettlement, leaving an unknown number of Chinese nationals vulnerable to detention and forced repatriation should Thai authorities choose to do so 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’m friends with him, so I took the initiative to manage and maintain the place, and I’ve stayed here ever since.”
“I help him with construction work, weeding and trimming trees,” said Hu, 60, who is from the central Chinese province of Hubei.
The memorial site is not far from the infamous Bridge 277 of the Burma-Thailand Railway, which spans the winding Khwae Noi River at Kanchanaburi.
Idyllic place that belies the horrors
Today, the area is home to a series of memorial gardens for the victims of forced labor in extreme conditions under the Japanese army, and it offers a tour by tourist train over the bridge with cafes and restaurants overlooking the banks of the river.
“It is a charming, idyllic site that belies the intense horror and suffering endured by the men who built it,” according to a description on the Commonwealth Graves Foundation website.
It said around 60,000 or so of those who died there were Allied prisoners of war, including British, Australian, Dutch and some American troops, along with more than 200,000 Chinese, Malay, Burmese, Thai and Indonesian civilian workers who were pressed in service.
“They would work in terrible conditions, given minimal amounts of food, little sleep and little or no medical treatment,” the guide said, adding that many workers died from disease, others from torture and brutal assaults meted out by Japanese soldiers.
Harassed by immigration officials
For Hu, the area offers hope for a respite from the constant fear of detention and harassment from officials. Yet the police have still been out at his home of choice to ask questions, he said.
“I’ve discovered 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 agency came over here to harass me twice,” he said. “Each time they drove over in a convoy or cars, five or six of them.”
“Fortunately for me, they decided not to arrest me in the end because I hadn’t broken the law.”
He said he is fairly confident that Thai authorities are acting 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 financing me, and he asked me their names.”
“Obviously, only the CCP would care about that. [The Chinese authorities] Keep texting my friends and relatives, get them to persuade me to go back of my own free will and promise 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 greater 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 deportation. Many Chinese refugees in Thailand have said they are effectively on the runwho are constantly moving around in an attempt to avoid 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, protested against a ban on teaching Mongolian medium in schools, reported detained by Chinese State Security Police in Bangkok.
In 2019, Thai police detained two Chinese refugees – Jia Huajiang and Liu Xuehong – who had previously helped jailed rights website founder Huang Qi before he fled 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.