Where are the boatpeople?-Phuketwan

March 17, 2010

Phuket’s Big Puzzle: Where Are The Boatpeople?

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian

Phuketwan: March 9, 2010


LOCAL contacts confirmed today that two Thai Navy vessels were moored off Raya, a popular dive destination a short speedboat trip from Phuket. A third Navy vessel was said to have an unidentified boat in tow.

ROHINGYA boatpeople were said to be close to Phuket last night, spotted in a vessel near Raya island, a popular diving daytrip destination for tourists.

About 60 people had sought rice and help from a fisherman, a radio report said. Could the Navy come to intercede?

Then, after one radio message from a local villager, the code of silence descended. Phuketwan prepared to make a boat trip to greet the Rohingya, but officials would neither confirm nor deny the presence of would-be refugees.

Four Rohingya vessels from Burma or Bangladesh are said to be at sea now, destinations uncertain.

It is to be hoped they do not fall into the hands of the Thai military, because the policy of secrecy means their fate could remain unknown.

Since Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong broke the news last year that Thailand was greeting would-be refugees with detention on a secret island off Ranong and ”pushbacks” in open sea, leading to the deaths of hundreds, further Thai military action has been veiled in secrecy.

This year the Associated Press, the New York Times and TIME magazine have thoroughly reported the persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of Bangladesh and Burma.

For many of the thousands of Rohingya, deprived of basic consideration and unrecognised as citizens in either country, ”the choice is between a crocodile and a snake,” as one refugee told the Huffington Post.

What does that make Thailand, where far less attention is being paid to alarming breaches of human rights amid continuing secrecy and lack of proper scrutiny?

In Thailand, a boatload of Rohingya survivors has now been kept in detention for 13 months, at first in horrific conditions, with two deaths in custody.

The fate of the perpetual detainees still remains so disconcerting to them that the survivors reportedly went on hunger strike last week.

Last year’s alarming treatment of the Rohingya brought international scrutiny. In pursuing Phuketwan’s scoop, CNN correspondent Dan Rivers and his producers won the prestigious George Polk Award for television reporting for ”documenting abuses against Rohingya refugees by military forces in Thailand.”

This year, reporting on Rohingya and the military forces in Thailand is much tougher.

While Rivers extracted an admission from Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva that the ”pushbacks” had taken place, no punishment was ever meted out to those who ordered the shocking rights abuses.

Since then, the all-powerful Internal Security Operations Command has simply made news about any boatloads of Rohingya arriving in Thailand harder to detect.

In the sailing season of 2007-2008, almost 5000 Rohingya arrived in Thailand. In 2008-2009, about 1200 arrivals were documented before the ”pushback” story broke.

This sailing season, not a single Rohingya boat has been reported as reaching Thai waters, although departures are believed to have resumed.

Last year, it was the photographs taken by tourists that fully engaged the world in concern for the fate of the Rohingya, who had been virtually forgotten for 30 years.

The snapshots depicting horrors at the other end of the beach were taken by holidaymakers on islands around the Phuket-Andaman region, especially in the Similans, where the Navy laid out boatpeople in neat sandy rows to make sure they posed no threat of attack.

Real hardship would be delivered later, by those who coralled the unfortunate sailors behind barbed wire, then cut them loose on the open ocean to drift at great peril.

Since then, far from becoming more open and rejecting such future behavior, Thailand has simply adopted covert action as a cover.

So far this year, there have been no confirmed reports of boats, no international coverage, no further human rights abuses . . . just the occasional intercepted radio message amid aching silence.

Strange as it may seem, in the absence of an open approach on would-be refugees, tourists around Phuket and the Andaman remain the frontline force for human rights in Thailand.

If you have photos of Navy activity or boats under tow, please email them to editor@phuketwan.com

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