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BANGKOK, Feb 11 2011 (IPS) - On a beach dotted with swanky, star-class hotels, a boatload of bedraggled men appeared out of the dark sea one midnight, exhausted from nearly two weeks at sea fleeing Burma’s repressive military.
The rickety boat was one of three that have washed up onto Thailand’s tourist belt since Jan. 22 carrying 211 Rohingyas, the persecuted Muslim minority from Arakan state in western Burma that are now considered Southeast Asia’s newest “boat people”, activists say.
The Rohingyas’ journey across the Andaman sea to southern Thailand signals the possibility a flotilla of refugees will follow, now that the ocean has regained its post-monsoon calm, say refugee and human rights activists who have documented the accounts of the Rohingyas.
“The (first) two boats had apparently been 12 days at sea,” Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which researchers human rights violations that the Rohingyas face in Burma, tells IPS. “We were informed that one boat with about 100 people had left on the night of January 9 and another boat on January 10 or 11 with about 70 people.” Lewa has been tracking the persecution the Rohingyas have endured at the hands of the Burmese military in the Arakan state, close to the Bangladeshi border.
The men who made it to Thailand’s shores – including the island of Phuket, which attracts millions of tourists annually for its clean and spacious beaches and its sprawling luxury hotels – were the fortunate ones.
“Four boats left earlier and have not been heard of,” Lewa told IPS. “Two boats left afterwards, one on January 14 and one on January 22.”
The Rohingyas’ arrival has brought into focus the continuing plight the Rohingyas face in predominantly Buddhist Burma, and the fate that awaits those who seek refuge in Thailand.
The risks the Rohingyas take to escape persecution in Burma, or Myanmar, hardly endears them to Thai authorities, who keep them in immigration detention centres. Bangkok, in fact, refuses to classify them as refugees.
“If they entered the country illegally, they will be dealt with in accordance with the Thai immigration law,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi told IPS. “Thai authorities have apprehended loads of boat people, who had no documents showing they were heading to a third country.”
When asked if the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be able to interview the detainees, Thani said, “Our normal procedure once the legal process is completed is to give UNHCR access to them.”
The UNHCR, which has still to meet the 211 Rohingyas, is hoping that a discussion with them will achieve twin objectives. “We want to first assess their situation, and second to determine if any of them are in need of international protection, meaning if they are refugees,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for UNHCR, said in a phone interview from his headquarters in Geneva.
It is the second objective that will test Bangkok’s commitment to protect refugees. When 78 Rohingyas sought refuge in Thailand in 2009, U.N. officials were given very limited access to them, and consequently were unable to assess “who among them were refugees.” That batch of Rohingyas is still languishing in Thai detention centres.
That limited encounter between the U.N. agency and the 2009 detainees was, however, a noticeable improvement from a previous Thai policy. In December 2008, over 1,000 Rohingya boat people were forced back by Thai security forces, allegedly beaten and cast adrift mid-sea in boats without engines and provisions.
Thailand’s treatment of Rohingyas is a contrast to its record after the Vietnam war in the mid-1970s when it allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict in Indo-China to stay in camps in Thailand, even though Bangkok had not signed the 1951 International Refugee Convention.
“The problem stems from the Thai government’s reluctance to see Rohingyas as refugees,” says Anoop Sukumaran, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network, which has 120 civil society organizations from across the continent as its members. “The Rohingyas are seen as economic migrants but more importantly as a security threat.”
“The Rohingyas are a doubly threatened community,” he told IPS. “They perfectly fit the profile of refugees and also fit the profile of stateless people.”
In fact, few among Burma’s nearly 135 ethnic minority groups have been subject to the scale of abuse by government troops as much the Rohingya have in the Arakan State. The military regime even announced that the Rohingyas were not Burmese citizens, restricted their movement between villages, banned them from freely getting married, and subjected the community to forced labour. A wave of oppression unleashed in 1991 saw close to 250,000 Rohingyas flee the Arakan state for neighbouring Bangladesh.
Currently, over 1.5 million Rohingyas live in exile in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand.
Some of these routes to freedom had been by boat across the Andaman Sea. But this quiet trickle increased between October 2006 through March 2008, when more than 8,000 Rohingya refugees left the shores of Bangladesh by boat, with Thailand and Malaysia as their destinations.
“The Rohingyas still have a reason to flee and seek refugee status,” says Nurul Islam, president of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, a London- based network campaigning for the Rohingya’s political rights. “The situation is worsening with increased human rights violations and abuses by the border security forces.”
“Restrictions on education, trade and business are still imposed, and arrest, torture and extortion are a regular phenomenon,” he told IPS. “There is no freedom of religion and mosques cannot conduct repairs without the permission from the concerned authorities.”
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