Thailand's foreign minister made the announcement in New York, saying repatriating Burmese asylum seekers was a priority for his government. But rights workers say the elections will only entrench military rule in Burma and that the country will not be any safer for those who have fled.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Kasit Piromya, Thai foreign minister; David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher, Human Rights Watch; Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Asia; Chris Lom, information officer, International Organisation for Migration
COCHRANE: Thailand's foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, was giving a speech at the Asia Society in New York when he was asked about the prospects for Burma - or Myanmar as it's also called - after its election next month.
KASIT: I am going back to Bangkok and one of the first things I will be doing is to launch a more comprehensive programme for the Myanmar people in the camps, the displaced persons, the intellectuals that run around the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai province, to prepare them to return to Myanmar after the elections.
COCHRANE: Mr Kasit said it's unlikely the ballot will be completely free or fair, but said it is the first step on the road back to an open and democratic Burma.
KASIT: We are going to prepare the Myanmar people in Thailand for an eventual return to a new Myanmar, maybe half-democratic, but I think it is a beginning.
COCHRANE: The nine camps that spread along the Thai-Burma border are home to around 140,000 Burmese asylum seekers.
Most of them have fled conflict and persecution along ethnic or political lines.
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, says the idea of making them return is 'absurd'.
MATHIESON: It's simply not safe for them to go back. Just because Burma's holding elections in November doesn't mean the conditions have changed at all.
COCHRANE: Burma's election is scheduled for November 7.
Rights groups, as well as the United Nations, have expressed concern about the credibility of the election system, which reserves a quarter of all seats for the army and will take place without the main opposition party.
The National League for Democracy chose to not take part because its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, wasn't allowed to be involved and remains under house arrest.
David Mathieson, says vote next month is merely a mirage of democracy.
MATHIESON: This is one of the negative sides of the Burmese elections, this kind of phoney optimism that people have that the Burmese elections are a serious process - and they're just not.
COCHRANE: Despite the comments from Thailand's foreign minister, groups involved with refugee resettlement say they have seen no changes to policy about Burmese asylum seekers.
Kitty McKenzie is the spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Asia.
MCKINSEY: The UN refugee agency has no reason to believe that the Thai government intends to force refugees to return to Myanmar.
COCHRANE: David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch says that while forced repatriation would be frowned upon by the western world, Thailand has done it recently.
MATHIESON: It's very unlikely they would force refugees back after the elections. However, Thailand did do that over Christmas with the Hmong refugees in the north. They forced them back and there was very little that western countries could do to stop that.
COCHRANE: In addition to the asylum seekers in camps on the border, Thailand is also home to an estimated two million Burmese economic migrants, most of them working without proper visas.
For them, political reform isn't enough, they need the Burmese economy to strengthen and provide them the chance of work.
Chris Lom is the information officer at the International Organisation for Migration.
LOM: For the vast majority of those two million irregular migrants here and also registered migrants working here in Thailand, they're are here for economic reasons, but there are very large numbers of people from Myanmar who would go back if the economic situation allowed them to and they could find jobs there.
COCHRANE: While Burma is exploiting its rich natural resources, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world and its neighbours in Asia are watching for both economic, as well as political reform.
Thailand's foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, says the elections in Burma next month will be a test, not just of Burma but also of the regional bloc, ASEAN.
KASIT: The credibility of the election is not only on the credibility and respectability for Myanmar but for ASEAN as a whole. It's our credibility and respectability. And also on the notion of ASEAN centrality to the whole Asia Pacific.