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Army 'Admits Funding Round-up of Refugees'

Thursday, January 22, 2009
A BOATLOAD of Rohingya, apprehended on the Andaman coast on Friday, have yet to be located. The 46 refugees were handed over to the Army, Marine Police told Phuketwan after the transfer took place.

Greg Torode, chief Asia correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, landed on Ranong's mysterious Koh Sai Daeng island on Tuesday only to find it had been ''recently deserted.''

On Wednesday, a colonel in the Thai army confirmed its involvement in a program to round up boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh and send them back out to sea, saying it was done to ''protect Thailand from harm'' - and to help the refugees.

Colonel Sangob Naktanom, deputy commander of the Ranong regional command on the Andaman coast, told Torode that the army had been funding the program, under which village chiefs were trained to ''gather together'' boat people on suitable land.

''Colonel Sangob said the villagers provided food, water and clothing while they repaired the Rohingya's boats,'' Torode wrote. ''The Rohingya were then sent on their way. He said villagers sometimes found them new boats, or berths on boats heading to Indonesia and Malaysia. Others were handed to immigration police.

''Colonel Sangob said the program was an attempt to help the Rohingya, who did not want to stay in Thailand anyway. He denied that the army towed the Rohingya out to sea, or forced them to leave.''

The newspaper said that Reuters (news agency) reported that Colonel Manat Khongpan, of the army's internal security branch, testified to the Thai parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that some villagers had ''helped them repair their boat and towed it out to sea''.

''There was no explanation for this discrepancy,'' the report said.

''Of the 1000 or so boat people abandoned at sea [in Thailand] 538 were dead or missing as of Sunday,'' The South China Morning Post reported.

''Indian coastguard and security agency interviews with survivors who were found in Indian waters described how the Thai military towed them out to sea at gunpoint, then abandoned them in unpowered boats.

''In one horrific case, about 300 Rohingya - from a boatload of 412 - who tried to swim ashore drowned.''

According to the South China Morning Post's report, Colonel Sangob said: ''They never wanted to stay in Thailand, they wanted to keep going to Indonesia and Malaysia and so we helped the villagers help them.

''The villagers did not want to do them any harm. The army did not want to harm them.''

Today's article was accompanied by a photograph showing a group of Muslims apparently in prayer behind a barbed wire fence on Koh Sai Daeng.

The whereabouts of the latest boatload of refugees to arrive is still unknown.

More boats are expected to come south from Bangladesh and Burma between now and April, when the onset of the monsoon makes a long sea voyage even more dangerous.

Last sailing season, almost 5000 Rohingya were apprehended in Thailand and sent back through normal channels. The Army is reported to have taken over the processing of arrested Rohingya from Immigration in early December.

Australian Ambassador Paul Grigson raised the issue of treatment of Rohingya yesterday in a meeting in Bangkok with Foreign Minister Kasit Pirom to discuss the East Asia Summit, set for April, a Thai newspaper reported today.

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