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Boatpeople behind barbed wire on the Andaman's notorious Koh Sai Dang

Thai 'Fear Factor' Makes Boatpeople Fly Now

Monday, December 14, 2009
BOATPEOPLE are not coming to the Andaman coast this sailing season, according to the army colonel who has led his country's campaign to keep them out of Thailand.

Phuketwan and The South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong revealed in January that the boatpeople, often a mixture of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, were held in a barbed-wire compound on Koh Sai Daeng off the Andaman coast.

Paramilitary trained by the Thai army then secretly towed hundreds out to sea and abandoned them in unpowered boats. Survivors who made it to Indonesia and India told authorities that hundreds had died.

Colonel Manat Kongpan, of the Internal Security Operations Command, credited the preparedness of coastal villagers as one cause of the boatpeople ceasing to travel. "The arrests last sailing season helped to stop the boatpeople from coming," he said.

However, the Arakan Project, an NGO with connections in Bangladesh and Arakan state in Burma, the departure points for the Rohingya, said it was too early to be sure that no boats would come before the sailing season ends in April.

''We are told that there is some activity and some have paid the brokers and are ready to come,'' said Chris Lewa, the NGO spokeswoman. ''They are waiting to see what happens to the detainees who are currently being held in Bangkok. However, most are now flying direct to Malaysia.''

Ms Lewa said the availability of cheap flights and access to forged Bangladesh documents meant that for the first time, Rohingya women were also able to move to Malaysia, primarily as brides for Muslim Rohingya men, who are generally young and single.

''Brokers have switched to the air routes,'' she said. ''In many ways, it's simpler and safer.''

The first group of Rohingya to avoid the ''pushbacks'' are being held in detention in Bangkok. The men were transferred from a detention centre in Ranong, a town on the border between Thailand and Burma, after two teenagers died in custody.

As many as 30 of the would-be refugees, held captive in confined spaces without access to sunlight for six months, could barely walk when they arrived in Bangkok.

Phuketwan journalists were told in a face-to-face interview with the commander of the Ranong detention centre and in regular telephone calls that the detainees were happy, that they were well-treated, that they were content.

No action has been taken over the deaths in custody or against the people responsible for carrying out the pushback policy.

Thailand has held the chair of Asean this year as the 10-nation group attempted to set rules for human rights within the region.

When the Foreign Ministers of Asean met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Phuket mid-year, the Rohingya issue was the last item on a long list. Nothing was resolved then, nor has it been resolved since.

Almost 5000 Rohingya arrived on the Andaman coast in the 2007-2008 sailing season, prompting the then Thai government to look at methods of deterring others from following.

In 2008-2009, about 1200 would-be refugees arrived before exposure of the inhumane pushbacks received international media coverage.

Despite the risks involved, the hardship of life in Rohingya villages usually means people will try more than once to reach Thailand or Malaysia.

In Malaysia, their treatment has improved in reaction to a US State Department report this year condemning ''revolving door'' abuses in which corrupt Malaysian officials traded released boatpeople into various forms of slavery in Thailand.

The Andaman coast, meanwhile, continues to produce surprises. World-beating five-star resorts flourish along a holiday strip that of late combined sunbathing tourists and captured boatpeople lying on the same beach, but with vastly different levels of freedom.

Phuket has a small Rohingya community, a mix of both legal and illegal residents. It is believed that some boatloads of would-be refugees have come ashore on Phuket over the years, only to be arrested and transported to detention in Ranong as illegal Burmese.

Those with enough money would have been able to pay to be recycled. The fate of those without the capacity to bribe corrupt officials and brokers is less clear.

A version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post, December 14.
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