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Boatpeople apprehended on Phuket in January-February

More Boatpeople Sailing Past Phuket, say Reports

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
PHUKET: Reports have reached Phuketwan that as many as eight boats laden with would-be refugees have set sail from Bangladesh and northern Burma in the past few days.

A more certain report says that a boatload of boys and men who sailed earlier this month was intercepted and ''helped on'' off the Thai island of Prayam in the border province of Ranong just yesterday.

If those reports are correct and if the departures continue at this rate, tourists on day-trips and fishermen off Phuket and the Andaman coast can expect to encounter Rohingya boatpeople at sea sometime soon this ''sailing season.''

The reason why so many departures are being reported after a couple of quieter sailing seasons lies with the new elected Parliament in Burma, and the people traffickers.

After the tragic loss of hundreds of lives at sea because of the inhumane ''pushbacks'' from Thailand in 2008-2009, the Rohingya, treated as outcasts in their native Burma and in neighboring Bangladesh, bided their time.

Their hope was that the new and seemingly more democratic government in Burma, elected last year, would provide them with citizenship and a chance at change.

It didn't happen. Once the ''new'' Burma made plain in Parliament that the Rohingya would stay outcasts, the oppressed Muslim minority was left with no choice but to accept their status and cast themselves into the hands of people smugglers again.

Observers fully expect the number of sailings this safe and tranquil season, when tourists pack the beaches of Phuket and the neighboring Andaman province of Phang Nga, to rival 2007-2008, when almost 5000 boatpeople landed in Thailand.

The Royal Thai Navy's ''help on'' policy, which replaced the reprehensible push-backs, may see a larger number of vessels sail past Thailand to what's believed to be their destination of preference, Muslim Malaysia.

However, mystery so far surrounds the landing place of several Rohingya boats that have been confirmed interceptions at sea off Phuket and Phang Nga in the past few weeks.

Silence is golden. The countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed that Burma, so recently a pariah dictatorship, now deserves to chair the organisation in 2014 because of evidence of reform.

Those reforms, however, do not include the Rohingya, who remain without citizenship and who are subjected to movement control and restrictions on marriage.

So Asean, with the pea of real change somewhere under one of those thimbles, by default countenances Burma's appalling treatment of the Rohingya.

The lack of concern is likely to rebound around the region if sunblackened and hungry boys and men begin to turn up once more in vast numbers on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia.

Certain sailings occurred on October 16 (65 on board) October 24 (70) and October 25 (79). While one source says the two later sailings have landed in Malaysia, nothing more has been heard of the first boat.

The boat that was intercepted and ''helped on'' off Prayam island yesterday is believed to be one of three boats reported to have sailed on November 5 and November 6.

If eight more boats have set to sea since, and the average number of people on each boat is around 70, then the people smugglers must be rubbing their hands with glee at Asean's lack of interest, and at the prospect of thousands more Rohingya being pushed to sea by desperation between now and April.

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