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THAILAND: Burmese Refugees Set Adrift, Hundreds Feared Dead

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Jan 19 2009 (IPS) - Hundreds of Rohingya (Burmese Muslim) refugees are feared dead after being pushed back into the sea by Thai authorities, according to human rights activists based in Thailand.

Up to 200 people are missing, while more than 300 others are believed to have died after they were set adrift by Thai soldiers – some with their hands tied behind their backs – in boats without engines, a survivor from one of the boats told IPS.

Thai military authorities have denied these accusations and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised a full investigation.

In a statement, the Thai foreign ministry said it was “investigating and verifying all the facts and surrounding circumstances.”

The ministry added that while the Thai government was dedicated to protecting its sea borders from all illegal activities, including illegal immigration, “we are committed to maintaining our traditional adherence to humanitarian principles and the protection of human rights”.

The United Nations’ refugee agency has also voiced its concern about the reports and urged the government to investigate the incidents.

“We request the Thai government to take all measures necessary to ensure that the lives of Rohingya are not at risk and they are treated in accordance with humanitarian standards,” said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok.

Rohingya face harsh treatment and discrimination by Burmese authorities. They are prohibited from travelling outside their native Arakan state and, in September, more than 100 Rohingyas were given six-month prison sentences after they were caught travelling to Rangoon, looking for work.

Vejjajiva told journalists that Thailand would investigate allegations that the Thai navy set hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers adrift. The country’s defence minister will investigate these accusations and report back to the prime minister as soon as possible, his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, said.

“What is needed now, is not a knee-jerk response – to what may be the tip of the iceberg – but a clear policy position and procedures for processing would be migrants and refugees in keeping with accepted international standards,” Sunai Pasuk, a Thai-Burma specialist with the United States – based Human Rights Watch told IPS.

“It’s a real test for the Democrat-led government. Will it follow its high moral stand and promises to protect human rights and international laws, or will it compromise its values in the interest of maintaining good relations with the country’s (Burma’s) top military brass?” Pasuk said.

There are also fears for the safety of some 50 Burmese refugee seekers who were taken into custody by the Thai authorities last week. A boat carrying 46 Rohingya was intercepted off an island in southern Thailand by police, and handed over to local military authorities, according to a source in the area.

These migrants, like the others detained before them, are members of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority, who are mostly stateless people living in the west of country, bordering Bangladesh.

Most are Muslims, and have been mercilessly persecuted by the military authorities in Burma. Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled repression and sought asylum and work abroad. Most fled to Bangladesh before heading for a third destination.

In the past few months, thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Burma have allegedly been rounded up by Thai soldiers, and transferred to an island off the coast of southern Thailand, near Ranong, before being put into boats without engines and set adrift in the sea.

These expulsions reverse Thailand’s previous policy of allowing Burmese refugees, including Rohingya, to land in on their way to seek work, particularly in Malaysia. Many of those migrants were turned over to human traffickers, or press-ganged into working on building sites in Thailand’s southern beach resorts or put to work as sailors on Thai fishing boats.

“More than a thousand Burmese immigrants – who were held on Koh Sai Daeng [or Red Island] – were cast adrift by the Thai military authorities in the past few weeks, in two separate instances,” a local Burmese resident in Ranong told IPS on condition of anonymity.

“We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine,” Zaw Min, one of the few survivors from a boat carrying 400 refugees, told IPS through an interpreter. “We were then towed into the high seas and set adrift with little water or food.’’

“The food and water ran out within a few days,” said another survivor. “We were starving for nearly two weeks and feared we would never see dry land again.’’

The boat drifted for more than 15 days in the Andaman Seas, before being rescued by Indian coast guards and moved to a relief camp on an Andaman island. “The Thai authorities obviously wanted us to die on the boat,” Zaw Min told IPS.

Only 107 Burmese migrants of that lot survived, according to refugee workers in contact with the group. There were four dead bodies on board when the boat was beached. Most died after attempting to swim ashore in a shark-infested area known for its choppy waters.

Just before the New Year, Thai authorities towed some 600 Burmese migrants out to sea in four boats, according to researchers for the ‘Arakan Project’ which monitors the Rohingya’s movements.

One of these boats ended back at Koh Sai Daeng, where some 80 refugees are still being held, according to local residents. The second boat beached on a small island just off the Indonesian province of Aceh, where nearly 200 Burmese are already in police custody there.

The third boat was rescued by Indian authorities near the Andaman Island, and the 90 refugees on board transferred to hospital for treatment. The fourth boat is still missing and the more than 200 Burmese refugees on board are now feared dead.

Thai authorities dismiss these incidents as fantasy. “We never push them back to the sea,” said one official, Lt. Col. Tara Soranarak, an inspector in the Ranong immigration office. “We have our procedure to deport migrants to their home countries after processing them through the Thai legal system,’’ he added.

But privately, Thai officials have expressed concern that the Rohingya may be headed to join the rebellion in southern Thailand, where insurgents are seeking greater autonomy from Bangkok and even a separate Islamic state.

All the Burmese Muslims who have been detained and cast adrift, originally set off from Cox’s Bazaar, on Bangladesh’s eastern coastline, which is also close to the border with Burma. “All of them paid 10,000 baht (286 US dollars) to traffickers in Bangladesh for the journey to Thailand,” Chris Lewa, who heads the Arakan Project, told IPS.

Thai traffickers charge a further 18,000 to 23,000 baht (515 – 658 dollars) to be transported from Thailand to Malaysia, according to Lewa.

Last year more than 5,000 Burmese refugees fleeing in boats from Bangladesh and Burma were detained by Thai authorities. Many more have successfully managed the dangerous journey to Malaysia and Indonesia.

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