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Rohingya in Ranong: Freedom reflects on the police prison van

Boat People Deaths 'Exaggerated by Trafficker'

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
A version of this article appears in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, of February 11.

A HUMAN rights group says that claims about the latest batch of Rohingya boat people set adrift by the Thai military were exaggerated by one of the survivors.

The suggestion that the group of 198 people rescued off Aceh, Indonesia, last Monday, were deliberately set adrift in unpowered boats has not been disputed by the Arakan Project.

But Chris Lewa, co-ordinator of the human rights group, said subsequent interviews with survivors indicated the boat people had been at sea 14 days, not three weeks as originally claimed, and that two deaths occurred along the way, not 22.

The original claims were made by a survivor who identified himself as ''Rahmat''. The other survivors spoke only their obscure Arakani dialect, but because he spoke Malay, Rahmat's account was widely quoted by Indonesian reporters.

Ms Lewa said Arakan Project researchers, who speak Arakani, had interviewed four other survivors.

Rahmat's claim that a total of nine vessels had been set adrift with as many as 1200 people aboard were also discredited, Ms Lewa said. ''No other boats were towed out,'' she said. ''Everyone seemed to rely on one man,'' she said. ''Everyone interviewed him and quoted him.''

Ms Lewa said Rahmat had been identified from video footage as a people smuggler who owned the boat, and who travelled from Malaysia to join it on this voyage.

This claim could not be confirmed by the South China Morning Post. ''Even my assistants are finding the situation confusing,'' she said. ''But we need to establish an honest and accurate version of events.''

Ms Lewa said that on the basis of the voyage taking 14 days, the Rohingya now recovering in Indonesia probably included the 126 boatpeople who were the subject of a January 20 plea by the United Nations refugee agency.

The UNHCR requested access to the group, which it suspected at the time were being held secretly on the island of Koh Sai Daeng. Thailand rejected the plea.

Their voyage was likely to have begun about January 18 or 19. A Post reporter visited Koh Sai Daeng on January 20 and found it newly deserted.

The Post included Rahmat's claims last week in a story headlined: ''Thais blamed by more boat people''.

The main claim contained in this story - that the boat had no engine - was substantiated by two Indonesian military sources.

The claim that the boat was towed out to sea by Thai authorities was substantiated by the Indonesian military as well as another survivor, who gave his name as Nurullah.

Ms Lewa said this was also substantiated by the Arakan Project's interviews with the four survivors.

Indonesia is considering whether the rescued boatpeople should be granted refugee status.

Another group of 78 Rohingya is being held in a detention centre in the Thai-Myanmar border township of Ranong.

ANOTHER article in the Post notes that refugee workers say privately they fear racism is making the plight of the Rohingya worse.

Greg Torode reports that Myanmar's senior official in Hong Kong yesterday sought to distance his nation from Rohingya boat people, describing them as ''ugly as ogres''.

The article continues: In a letter to all heads of foreign missions in Hong Kong and local newspapers, Consul General Ye Myint Aung dismissed recent reports and commentaries detailing their troubled history as a stateless Muslim tribe within Myanmar.

''In reality, Rohingya are neither 'Myanmar people' nor Myanmar's ethnic group,'' Ye Myint Aung writes.

''You will see in the photos that their complexion is 'dark brown','' he adds, noting that the complexion of Myanmese is ''fair and soft, good-looking as well''.

In a long analysis in the same issue of the Post, Torode also examines connections between Thailand's new PM and the military.

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