PHUKET: The sight of women and children on a ricketty open boat that had been at sea for almost two weeks led to 74 Rohingya being brought ashore to Phuket and safety last night.
Today the future of the group, now being held in cells at Immigration HQ in Phuket City, was being decided with human rights groups involved.
Phuket Muslim community leaders were urging officials not to send the families on into the arms of human traffickers who, according to one Rohingya who lives on Phuket, ''treat people like animals.''
Navy officers, Phuket police and journalists were alarmed by the sight of young women and children as young as three on the boat off southern Phuket yesterday.
The group had endured a long and perilous voyage and the children appeared to be hungry, healthy but clearly at risk.
It is believed the decision to take the group ashore rather than being ''helped on'' was made last night by the Commander of Thai Navy Three, Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khajitsuwan.
Muslim rights groups on Phuket are urging Immigration officials to transfer the group to detention in Bangkok, where their future is more assured.
The alternative of Immigration detention in Ranong, the port on the Thai border with Burma, would leave them at risk of being trafficked. Teenage Rohingya have also previously died in custody in Ranong.
Last night's decision on Phuket reflects vast differences in approach among Asean countries. Singapore last month refused to allow a cargo vessel that had rescued 40 shipwrecked Rohingya from landing.
It's the first time a Rohingya vessel has been intercepted off the Andaman coast with women and children on board.
The boat, in need of fuel, is just a few minutes off the south coast of Phuket. Officials at first intended to restock it with basic provisions and ''help on'' the group today.
But reports from the vessel that women and children were on board swiftly changed the minds of Phuket authorities, Governor Maitree Inthusud told media at Phuket Provincial Hall in Phuket City today.
Two basic cells at Immigration HQ are small and not made to hold 74 men, women and children. But they are a safer place than on an uncertain sea.
Talks about what should happen to the families are expected to continue this afternoon.
This group is fortunate. Other groups comprising only men and boys have been trucked immediately to the border with Burma or, if they are intercepted further south, delivered to traffickers on the Thai-Malaysia border.
The traffickers usually ask 50,000-60,000 baht per person for safe passage to Malaysia. Those who cannot pay are forced to work for their passage on trawlers or performing menial tasks on plantations.
It is not known how the people traffickers would react to dealing in women and children.
More Rohingya families are expected to sail south by the thousands in the next few months because ethnic cleansing in Burma's Rakhine state has torched their homes.
Kept in displaced persons' camps without proper facilities and little food or other aid, the Rohingya are opting to take to the sea in search of sanctuary. And now whole families are coming.
Burma's Asean neighbors are being forced to deal with the results of Burma's race hate policy against the Rohingya, but show no sign of demanding that Burma show a more tolerant approach.
Burma does not accept the Rohingya as citizens so as stateless, persecuted outsiders, they can never be repatriated. Rohingya previously held in detention in Bangkok have later been found living in Malaysia.