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Forensics expert Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand talks to Phuketwan

Dr Pornthip: 'PM Asked Me to Check Boat People'

Thursday, January 29, 2009
Photo Album Above: Update: 62 Rohingya adults freed Saturday, reports say.


A version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong on January 29. Phuketwan reporters have been in Ranong, covering the issue they first revealed last month.

THAILAND'S most celebrated forensic scientist inspected the army's former detention camp for Rohingya boat people on the island of Koh Sai Daeng yesterday on what she said was a mission to gather ''evidence'' at the direct request of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The flamboyant Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, who has previously investigated alleged cases of torture and murder by the Thai army in the restive southern provinces, also visited the latest batch of boat people to arrive in Thailand.

She examined the injuries suffered by some of the 66 Rohingya who appeared in court in Ranong where they faced charges of illegal immigration.

Dr Pornthip, who is the Director of the Forensic Science Institute at the Ministry of Justice, said that she was already in the district investigating unrelated crimes when she received a phone call from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

''The Prime Minister asked me for my help, and wanted me to gather evidence at the island,'' she said.

Later, in an interview outside Ranong Jail, she said she would check the Rohingya boats for signs of bomb chemicals. She said she had checked some previous boats.

The clothes of the refugees would also be examined for bomb-making residues, she told us.

Dr Pornthip, who visited Koh Sai Daeng yesterday morning, did not elaborate on the nature of the evidence she had been collecting there.

She said she was also tasked by Mr Abhisit with checking on the health of the latest detainees - many of whom were suffering injuries they said were inflicted by the Myanmese military.

Dr Pornthip said she was checking the age of the wounds, some of which resembled whip lashes on the back and petrol burns, to make sure they were not inflicted in Thai custody.

The men were handed over to police by the Thai navy on Monday.

Previously, Rohingya detainees were transferred to army custody, but it is not clear if the switch represents a broad policy change. Navy and police sources were unable to clarify the matter.

A South China Morning Post investigation over the past month revealed that about 1,000 boat people had been towed out to sea by the Thai army in unpowered vessels then set adrift.

Hundreds died as a result. The abandoned boat people were first held on Koh Sai Daeng, the Post's investigations found.

The island is now deserted, but still bears evidence of its former role.

Sources in other branches of the Thai uniformed services said that late last year, the army took over from police and immigration when it came to the handling of Rohingya.

Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva initially issued a blanket denial that the Thai military had maltreated any Rohingya, and various army officers denied that the army was involved.

But as photographs of the operation on Koh Sai Daeng emerged, the army admitted that it had been funding an operation in which local villagers would round up the Rohingya who were detained at various locations before being sent back to sea.

The army has tried to categorise the operation as ''helping'' the refugees, but survivors of the policy said they were beaten, towed out to sea at gunpoint and abandoned with insufficient food and water in powerless vessels.

Late Tuesday, the Thai foreign ministry said in a statement: ''As for the serious allegations... including that various forms of mistreatment were inflicted... this must be categorically denied as having no place in policy and procedures.

''Nevertheless, should concrete evidence be presented, the Thai government would seriously look into such cases and further verification carried out.''

The latest batch of Rohingya to arrive in Thai waters numbered 78, but 12 underage youths were excluded from yesterday's court proceedings and instead were being held at immigration headquarters in Ranong.

Speaking at Pak Nam jail before his court appearance, one of the men who spoke Thai said they were heading for Malaysia, but their boat broke down off Burma.

He identified one of the other passengers on the boat as the ''broker'' who owned the vessel.

But the judge in Ranong imposed the same penalty on all 66 men, a fine of 1,000 baht. The men were transferred to Ranong jail where they are likely to serve five days in jail in lieu of a fine before being deported.

The Post earlier visited four of the Rohingya in Ranong Hospital. The men were about to have their bandages changed by nurses.

An interpreter at their bedside, a young local imam named Achai, said the men had told him the boat in which they were heading south went ashore in Myanmar, where they were set upon by soldiers.

He said he was told they were all beaten to different degrees, but the four men who required hospital treatment also suffered burns inflicted by the soldiers.

''There is no reasonable ground to believe that these migrants fled from their country of origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted,'' a Thai government statement said yesterday.

Fisherman Tells of Barbed Wire and Fear
Update
Rohingya boat people have been coming in their thousands since 2006 to the Andaman coast. A fisherman with a key hand in their detention on a mystery island tells his story.
Fisherman Tells of Barbed Wire and Fear

Boat People in Thailand: Phuketwan Reports
Fresh Tourist Snapshots
The torment of the Rohingya boat people was brought to the world's attention by Phuketwan. Now we look forward to Thailand restoring its good reputation.
Boat People in Thailand: Phuketwan Reports

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