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Vice Admiral Supot Pruksa, Commander, 3rd Naval Area, Royal Thai Navy

Burmese 'Detention Island' Idea Cause for Concern

Sunday, March 30, 2008
THE SUGGESTION by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej that Burmese Muslim boat people be kept on a deserted island as a deterrent to others will raise eyebrows this week, especially on Phuket.

An increasing number of this minority group, known as Rohingya, have been fleeing their home state in northwest Burma in search of a better life, to the point where the PM has become alarmed about national security.

Whether these poor, malnourished victims of oppression represent a threat to Thailand is a matter of opinion. They really need help, not more suffering and persecution.

As Phuketwan has already reported, one boatload of 80 who landed in Phang Nga on Wednesday told officials there had been deaths on board during their 11-day voyage in an ill-equipped boat.

Some survivors required hospital treatment. The whole group was quickly trucked back to the Thai-Burma border, where they will live in indefinite exile, like other maltreated Burmese minority groups.

If the PM's suggestion is pursued, the most suitable islands for their confinement are likely to be in the Andaman Sea, perhaps dotted somewhere among the blossoming five-star resorts and spas.

These persecuted Burmese, fighting for their lives, already share the same Andaman waters as live-aboard diveboats, superyacht owners and happy holidaymakers on coral reef daytrips.

That's shocking and sad enough.

Conditions must be extremely harsh for men, women and children to undertake such long, risky voyages into the unknown without adequate provisions.

Locking them up on an island in the Andaman Sea poses no real solution.

'Deathship' Burmese Muslims Forced Back to Border

By coincidence, Phuketwan talked last week with the man in charge of national security for the region.

THE LEADER of Thailand's Third Fleet is based on Phuket and has a personal view about the main dangers to the island.

Vice Admiral Supot Pruksa, Commander, 3rd Naval Area, Royal Thai Navy, is always on the alert for potential threats of one kind or another.

The Navy, as well as being in a state of constant preparedness, also has an important role to play when it comes to the environment.

Phuket's two main problems, Vice Admiral Supot believes, centre on having too little water and too much garbage.

This is a result, he says, of having five million tourists visit each year on an island without the appropriate infrastructure to match.

Mind you, the Vice Admiral can see the attractions that the island has to offer.

''I have been here two years and I love Phuket,'' he says. ''The people are good, and so is the food.''

Indeed, the Navy was one of the first organisations to realise how well-placed Phuket was as a perfect strategic location, moving its HQ down from Phang Nga 16 years ago.

The base at Cape Panwa is a real estate agent's dream. Phuketwan drove up the hill from the gates to the all-white command centre at the top, which has one of the best views on the whole West coast.

Inside, along one wall of the well-appointed meeting room, is a collection of about 40 plaques, donated by visiting ships from other navies.

Included among them is one from the USS John S. McCain, named for the war hero and senator now running as the Republican candidate for US president.

And there will definitely be more navy ships coming, the Vice Admiral says. Phuket is just as popular with sailors in uniform from around the world as it is with other kinds of tourists.

''Singapore, Malaysia, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, the US,'' he says, with a smile. ''They all love to come to Phuket and anchor in Patong.''

Outside, every half-hour, a sailor in hard-hat on guard duty snaps to attention, marches a few paces, and rings a large bell to signal the time to everyone on the base.

About 200 officers and men are stationed on the island, with about 1000 more at the Tablamu centre in Phang Nga, along with about 10 vessels.

The Tablamu base was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. It was a Sunday morning and several sailors died out on the low-lying golf course, which runs alongside the beach.

But the Navy was quick to react and their priority was to help villagers along the coast to rebuild quickly. ''It was our duty,'' the Vice Admiral says.

That was the last crisis in which the Navy presence proved its worth. Phuket and the region are unusual because, unlike most provinces, there is no army base here.

So the Vice Admiral has a key role. He visits the Governors of Phuket and Phang Nga regularly to discuss matters of mutual interest.

As a matter of fact, if there was a crisis sufficiently large enough to threaten national security, the Vice Admiral would become the man in charge. The two governors would report to him.

Fortunately, peace and Phuket seem to go together nicely. The main role of the Third Naval Area Command is to patrol the Andaman Sea, around the clock.

While drug smuggling and illegal fuel imports are among the crimes that the patrol boats look out for, most of the navy's work at sea is in arresting illegal aliens.

Boatloads come from Burma and the people arrested are usually taken ashore and trucked back by police to the border.

Rough weather in the monsoon season usually reduces the number of boats carrying illegal aliens. If they sail, they risk a greater likelihood of death.

The Navy always works closely with Customs, Immigration, Marine Police and other official bodies.

Another important aspect of the Navy's role, under the patronage of the Queen, is in protecting turtles on Hu Yong, one of nine islands in the Similans marine park.

Turtles lay eggs there, then when the hatchlings emerge, they are taken to Phang Nga and raised in captivity for six months, increasing their chances of survival on release.

Releases take place at various times of the year, on the Queen's Birthday and at other special times.

Clearly, the Navy is extremely sensitive to the survival of the turtle, one species under threat in an increasingly hostile world.

It's hardly surprising that the Vice Admiral should be an all-round environmentalist who wants to defend and protect Phuket and the region against every threat.

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