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Arrested Rohingya in the care of Marine Police, 2008-2009

Boatpeople off Thailand: Conflicting Accounts Grow

Monday, March 22, 2010
A NAVY spokesman on Phuket has rejected claims that a Royal Thai Navy vessel intercepted a boatload of would-be Rohingya refugees before urging the 93 men on board to continue to Malaysia.

His comments contradict Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said in a press release last week: ''On 4 March 2010, the Royal Thai Navy's vessels encountered a boat carrying a group of 93 individuals near Thai territorial waters.''

The men, who were eventually picked up by Malaysian authorities off the holiday island of Langkawi, told authorities they had been intercepted within sight of land off Thailand by a navy boat.

The Navy spokesman, Captain Puttiporn Sawatsut, did confirm that local people around Raya island, a popular diving destination near Phuket, had alerted the Navy to the presence of a strange vessel earlier this month.

''We put up a helicopter and three boats were sent to the area, but we found nothing,'' Captain Puttiporn said.

He made this statement in an interview at the Third Navy Command base on Phuket with perhaps eight naval colleagues within earshot.

His comments, made on March 17, conflict with the Foreign Affairs release the same day (although dated March 16) that said: ''After communicating with the people on board, with assistance from a nearby fishing boat's Myanmar crew, it was established that the people were from Myanmar and heading south and had no intention of entering Thailand.

''Hence, in accordance with the established Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), the RTN vessels gave the people on board humanitarian assistance, which included the provision of food, water and fuel, and then allowed them to continue their journey.''

The Rohingya, according to interviews screened on CNN, said they were given food and water then towed towards Malaysia by a navy vessel.

This means there are currently three distinctly different versions of events: the Rohingya version as reported on CNN, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs version, and the version of a Navy spokesperson on Phuket.

Captain Puttiporn said that all military vessels in Thailand were the same grey color. The would-be refugees may have confused a ''navy'' vessel with a vessel from some other arm of the military, possibly the Internal Security Operations Command. ISOC operations are seldom made public.

The regional head of ISOC Command 4, Colonel Manat Kongpan, had previously said by telephone that he had no knowledge of the apprehension of Rohingya off Thailand's coast. ''They just pass Thailand,'' he said.

Captain Puttiporn said that Navy vessels off the Andaman coast were certainly prepared for possible encounters with Rohingya vessels because would-be refugees have sailed from Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) in a large number of boats in recent years.

''If we encountered them outside the 12-mile territorial limit, we would advise them not to enter Thai waters and help them with food and water,'' he said.

''We would also give them fuel if they needed it. If their engine was broken, we would repair it for them.''

And inside Thai territorial waters? ''We would be obliged to arrest them and have them taken into custody.''

He said that ISOC remained in charge of policy on treatment of the would-be refugees.

He also told Phuketwan he believed that 40 to 50 boatpeople were currently being held under ISOC command in Ranong, a large town on the Thai-Burma border with a notorious Immigration detention centre.

''The same policy is in place as before,'' Captain Puttiporn said. ''If we encounter boatpeople in Thai waters, they are handed to ISOC.''

He blamed the ruling junta in Myanmar for their lack of acceptance of the Rohingya, creating the problem of unwanted immigration in Thailand and Malaysia.

''How can we send them back when their own country refuses to accept them?''

One group of Rohingya, apprehended in January last year, is still being held in detention in Bangkok. Bangladeshis travelling with them have been repatriated home.

Their prolonged detention, including a period in Ranong in which two teenagers died in custody, appears to be intended to warn others that sailing to Thailand is a futile exercise.

Deteriorating treatment of Rohingya in Bangladesh, across Myanmar's northern border, where most Rohingya live without being accepted as citizens, recently has led some to contemplate paying people-traffickers to be shipped south.

The risky voyage was undertaken by thousands before Thailand introduced its ''push-back'' policy during the last annual sailing season, from December to April.

Under that policy, boatpeople were towed out to sea and cut loose without motorised power, drifting at their peril.

Hundreds are thought to have died before reports in Phuketwan and in the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong exposed the abuse.

Malaysian officials are interviewing the 93 Rohingya being held in detention there and are expected to make their conclusions known to the Thai government.

More boats are expected to come south within weeks. The would-be refugees usually have no navigation equipment and the boats are always overcrowded and in disrepair. They seldom venture beyond sight of land.

However, the voyagers often do not know whether they are at sea off Myanmar, Thailand or Malaysia and usually only head for shore once food supplies are exhausted.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release as posted in English on the mfa.go.th website reads:

Statement regarding the Rohingya boat people

In response to recent media reports concerning a group of Rohingyas landing in Malaysia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sought clarification from the authorities concerned and wishes to make the following statement:

1. On 4 March 2010, the Royal Thai Navy's vessels encountered a boat carrying a group of 93 individuals near Thai territorial waters.

2. After communicating with the people on board, with assistance from a nearby fishing boat's Myanmar crew, it was established that the people were from Myanmar and heading south and had no intention of entering Thailand.

3. Hence, in accordance with the established Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), the RTN vessels gave the people on board humanitarian assistance, which included the provision of food, water and fuel, and then allowed them to continue their journey.

4. Thailand denies the claims made by various news reports that the Thai authorities were involved in towing the boat.

5. Furthermore, the RTN had also investigated the claim that a number of Rohingya boats were also found arriving in islands near Phuket around this time, and found that there had been no such boat arrivals.

16 March 2010
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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They are all male Muslim job seekers. There are no women or children. Good on Thailand to send them on to Muslim Malaysia.

Editor: Religion has nothing to do with it. They are stateless, persecuted people and they need help.

Posted by lek on March 22, 2010 17:08

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It's a shame the UK don't take a leaf out of Thailand's book

Posted by Nick on March 22, 2010 23:30

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Wow, where's the compassion? What a sorry mindset these commenters have. Sad that people can't see beyond the faith and skin color and just reach out a bit to help a fellow man. Thanks to Phuketwan for keeping us informed - hopefully it's making a difference.

Posted by L on March 23, 2010 08:14

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As a foreigner in a country (an immigrant?) I cannot possibly comment.

Posted by Sean on March 23, 2010 12:15

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I am in complete agreement with L, what happened to good old compassion. Desperate poverty stricken people not recognized in there own country, it's not a question of religion or color. Whatever happened to "do unto others"?

Posted by tom on March 23, 2010 13:55

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I really can't believe people posted comments like lek and Nick. Really, its awful. L, you are right on.

What a sorry state of affairs if these people really believe what they wrote. Shame on you. Thankfully, the majority of people don't think like these two, and I do wish Thailand was more like the West in accepting foreigners and helping people who need it.

Let me guess, Nick and Lek, we shouldn't have given money to the Tsunami victims, and Haiti earthquake victims as well. Screw 'em, right?

Posted by Disgusred on March 24, 2010 14:35


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