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A bikini among brutality: Similans beach day-trip, December 23

Similans Tourists See Boat People Mistreated

Thursday, January 15, 2009
Photo Album Above


Report from the South China Morning Post, January 15

Dozens of Rohingya refugees were beaten and detained for hours by the Thai Navy on an Andaman Sea tourist island, in scenes that unfolded in full view of foreign holidaymakers.

Photographs of the December 23 incident in the Similan Islands were captured by Hong Kong-based tourist Andrew Jones.

Mr Jones, whose name has been changed for the purposes of this article, described how guards armed with M-16 rifles forced the refugees to lie face down in the sand for at least two hours, then ''whipped'' them about the head with a strap if they tried to sit up or move. The refugees were naked to the waist and bound at their wrists.

Some tourists appeared oblivious to the scenes just metres away, continuing to snorkel and sunbathe. Others who were shocked by the treatment of the men and tried to photograph the incident had their cameras snatched away by angry guards, who deleted the images.

''Some of them [the refugees] were trying to sit up and looked like they were complaining, but they were answered with a whip on the back and head,'' said Mr Jones, a 23-year-old Australian student who is living with his parents on Hong Kong's Gold Coast.

''One of them was dragged to the shade - not looking like he was in good shape - where he lay for the rest of our time there. This had an effect on the others, who complained, but they were then hit with the whip.''

The ''whip'' described by Mr Jones appears to have been some sort of strap, while other guards used makeshift lashes fashioned from stiff jungle vines.

Two other witnesses have corroborated Mr Jones version of events.

Thai officials have confirmed that the Thai Navy apprehended a group of 93 Rohingya boatpeople on December 23, and took them to the island of Koh Baed for processing. The Royal Thai Navy refused to comment immediately on the incident, saying that all questions had to be submitted in writing first.

Mr Jones contacted the SCMP after seeing Monday's report about the Thai Army's treatment of Rohingya refugees. That report revealed how the army had been secretly housing refugees on a secluded Andaman island, before towing them in their primitive boats into international waters, and abandoning them with only paddles for power.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group who hail from the border areas between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Mr Jones, his girlfriend and parents were among a boatload of about 30 day-trippers from the resort of Khao Lak who arrived at ''Donald Duck Bay'' on Koh Baed, also known as Similan Eight, at about 1pm.

''There were about four other dive boats anchored in the bay . . . Two sailing yachts were also there. It was quite packed,'' he said.

It took a moment to realise that the immobile objects under Navy guard on the beach were not logs, but people.

''A few of the tourists moved closer, to take photos. The guards armed with guns signalled them to stay away. People who got too close had their cameras taken and their photos deleted.

''They had their hands on their rifles. We knew that they meant business. It was scary.''

The refugees were still laying face down in the sand at 3pm when Mr Jones' group departed. He said that a yachtsman who had been watching the incident told him the refugees had been detained on the beach for five hours by that stage. The fate of the group is not known.

Refugee International, a Washington-based advocacy group, criticised the Thai military's treatment of Rohingya refugees this week, saying that the policy of sending them back to sea was a contravention of international standards and law.

Rohingya who arrived in Thailand were previously handed over to immigration authorities for processing. However, sources in the Ranong provincial government, police, navy and marine police all said that since late last year, all Rohingya were handed over to the army.

Second report from the South China Morning Post, January 15:

As tourists frolicked, detainees were forced to lie face down at gunpoint

Beatings on the beach - my shock at rough treatment of refugees


It was only on Monday that Thailand's Andaman coast was basking in the glory of being crowned Luxury Destination of the Year by The New York Times' travel section.

But it is publicity of a far different kind that now threatens to overshadow what was proclaimed to be the rebirth of the region's tourism industry in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

Startling images captured by Hong Kong-based tourist Andrew Jones three weeks ago reveal a side of the glittering Andaman Coast that many would prefer not to be seen.

Mr Jones, whose name has been changed for the purposes of this article, said he was stunned to watch as Thai navy guards beat scores of Rohingya refugees, who hail from the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, on a busy tourist beach in the Similan Islands.

Scrolling through the photographs taken by Mr Jones is a jarring experience. One moment the photographs show a happy group of holidaymakers enjoying their Christmas vacation; next come images of refugees splayed out in the sand as guards carrying automatic rifles stand guard over them.

The refugees lie face down, their wrists tied.

''We found it difficult to believe what we were seeing,'' Mr Jones said.

The following is Mr Jones' account of what unfolded on December 23. His version of events has been corroborated by two other witnesses.

''The group of us were picked up in the morning by the snorkeling company. We were taken back to the [company's] shop, which is close to a navy base, debriefed about the day, and were then taken to the boat we were snorkelling from.

We were taken to the first site, kind of a fringing reef or atoll, and while we were snorkelling I saw [a boat that looked like the one later seen with the refugees]. I noticed it because it was definitely out of place among the new speed boats and yachts. And we were in a national park that didn't allow fishing.

We then had lunch on the main island where you can camp and such. We lazed around on the beach, took a few pictures, which you can see.

We were then transported to another island cove where we did some more snorkelling, then we were taken to another island close by, called Similan 8.

We motored into [Donald Duck Bay] and saw this strange sight, which we later found out to be the refugees.

We had never seen anything like it before in our entire lives - at first we thought it was a bunch of logs, or seals. Then, maybe, a protest, or illegal fishermen. Other people on the boat thought it was some sort of photo shoot or art display.

[At this stage] we definitely didn't think it was refugees - [thinking that] if it was, the Thai navy would probably not have let us into the cove. Maybe [it was] an error of judgment by the Thai officers, who seemed a bit disorganised.

We arrived on the beach where people were sun baking and snorkelling, and went for a walk up to the peak. There is a picture of the beach [taken from here] showing the refugees. We all felt really bad, because here we were, sun baking and snorkelling and having a great holiday, and these people were bound on the beach in the open sun, obviously in a bad condition.

Some of them were trying to sit up and looked like they were complaining, but they were answered with a whip on the back and head. One of them was dragged to the shade - not looking like he was in good shape - where he lay for the rest of our time there. This had an effect on the others, who complained, but they were then hit with the whip.

The Thai officers were giving them water and taking them into the sea to go to the toilet.

While all this was happening, in the shade a few Thai officers and maybe a representative of the refugees were talking at a table.

The Thai officers then boarded and searched the [refugees'] boat. They grabbed all the stuff and laid it out on the sand.

We then boarded out own boat and headed back to the mainland.

While there had been lots of tourists around, any time that someone brought out a camera [the guards] would approach the tourist and yell ''no'' and motion for them to bring the camera to them. If they didn't bring it, the Thais would go over to them and forcefully take the camera and delete the pictures.

We were not allowed too close to the refugees, but we were allowed to sit just up behind on the beach and that's where I watched all this unfold. I talked with one of the yachtsmen, who had been there since 10am and had been watching it for a while - it was now 3pm. When we were leaving [the yachtsman and companions] decided to stay - when they were obvious about watching the events, the Thai guards would not beat the men so hard with the whip.

They congratulated me on getting the photos and told me 'someone definitely has to know what was happening out here today.'''

As told to Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian on Phuket

Republished by permission from the South China Morning Post, which the same day published an Editorial headlined: Repugnant refugee policy must be disowned

It began: The photographs we publish today of boatpeople under detention on a Thai tourist beach show how a picture can be worth a thousand words. They bring to life a witness' account of the rough reception that awaits Muslims from Myanmar who take to the sea in small boats in the hope of escaping oppression and poverty. . .
More at SCMP.com

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Here is the report that appeared in the South China Morning Post on Monday, January 12.

Headline: Rohingya boatpeople towed to international waters and left with paddles
Thailand's secret refugees: hidden on an island, then dumped at sea

By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian

Thailand's army is secretly detaining boatpeople on an island in the Andaman Sea, before towing them into international waters and abandoning them with only paddles, sources involved in the process said.

The army officially denies holding any Rohingya Muslims - who come from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh - who sail for Southeast Asia at this time of year by the hundreds.

But Ranong provincial governor Wanchart Wongchaichana said all Rohingya who arrive in the area are turned over to the army.

Rohingya arrested along all the Andaman coast provinces are sent to Internal Security. Go and talk to Colonel Manat [Khongpan],'' he said, referring to the regional chief of a controversial army unit, the Internal Security Operations Command.

The Thai navy, local police and marine police also referred queries about the fate of the Rohingya to the army. Sources in all three services said they now transported any detained Rohingya to Ranong and hand them over to the army. Previously, they were handed over to immigration officials.

The sources include officers who were present at Rohingya handovers to the army.

However, Colonel Manat denied having Rohingya in custody. ''If I see Rohingya, I will arrest them and hand them to the police. The army does not have Rohingya,'' he said, before switching off his mobile phone.

Local sources, including some who said they were recruited by the army to help in the repatriation, said the boatpeople are held on Thailand's Koh Sai Daeng, or Red Sand Island, before being taken out to sea.

The fate of the Rohingya is increasingly being discussed in regional diplomatic circles, amid reports of them also reaching Indonesia, Malaysia, and India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The subject is expected to be raised at next month's Asean summit in Thailand.

A boat trip to Koh Sai Daeng last week revealed it to be a jungle-covered island with a small stretch of golden sand that belied its name.

Although there were no Rohingya in sight, evidence of their presence littered the coast and islands on the way. Distinctive Rohingya vessels could be seen in coastal hamlets, both abandoned as hulks and moored.

At one village, a bright-blue vessel was tied to the muddy banks. With its high curves fore and aft, it was clearly not a traditional Thai boat.

Villagers told us that it had been sailed to Thailand by Rohingya from Bangladesh, where most of the voyages begin. Another vessel, also said to have been used by the Rohingya, sat nearby.

A fisherman in one Ranong village said: ''They tried to keep them at first on Koh Kang Cow (Bat Island). But tourists also came to see the bats, so they moved to Koh Sai Daeng.''

A woman living in a village close to a nearby army base backed up the fisherman's observation: ''The army put the Rohingya on Koh Sai Daeng. They take food and water out there almost every day.''

The next day, on our way to Koh Sai Daeng, we passed several hulks in the mangroves and along the shores. We were told these vessels had also been sailed to the region by Rohingya.

As we circled Koh Sai Daeng, a large high-prowed hulk sat on the beach - another Rohingya vessel, we were told. As we watched, a group of men jumped from a boat onto the sand. They were not wearing uniforms, but the sources with us said they were soldiers.

Koh Sai Dang lies not far from Koh Sai Dam (Black Sand Island), which is home to a community of 100 Muslim and Buddhist families and includes a mosque and a school. A little further away lies the larger island of Koh Phayam, an increasingly popular tourist destination dotted with resorts and bungalows. Koh Chang is close, too.

From the sea, no buildings could be seen on Koh Sai Daeng. Sources who said they had been recruited by the army to help transport the Rohingya told us that the boatpeople - all men - are kept in rough shelters and fed well until they recovered from their exhausting journey. Then the army takes them back out to sea and releases them.

An informed source said that on December 18, a total of 412 boatpeople had been taken to international waters north of Koh Surin (Surin Island) then left there.

That release brought to about 800 the number of Rohingya who have been turned back in this fashion since the army became involved late last year, the source said.

According to local fishermen involved in moving the men, about 80 Rohingya were still being held on Koh Sai Daeng as of last Friday.

''To arrest people when they enter Thai waters then release them in international waters, without motors or sails, would clearly be a violation of international human rights,'' said Chris Lewa, A Bangkok-based social worker seeking better treatment for the Rohingya boatpeople.

She said that brokers in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Malaysia were encouraging desperate Rohingya to make the dangerous boat journey to Thailand despite the possibility that they could be turned back.

Even if the unwelcome migration does present a security threat, as the army claims, the way the Rohingya are treated may contravene international law, Ms Lewa said.

Thai authorities have long been concerned about the arrival of large numbers of Rohingya, fearing some of them may head south to join the long-running Muslim insurgency.

In March last year, then prime minister Samak Sundaravej asked the navy to find a suitable island on which to detain the Rohingya.
But the idea of holding them in such a facility met outcry from human rights advocates and was supposedly shelved.

At the time, military chief Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit said of the Rohingya sneaking in to Thailand: ''The graph is rising and it is worrying, and we have to try to solve the problem.''

Rohingya usually arrive in Thailand from November to April, while seas are at their calmest.

According to official figures, in 2005-2006, 1,225 arrived in Thailand; in 2006-2007, there were 2,763. In 2007-2008, there were 4,886. From November 26 to December 25 last year, 659 Rohingya were detained in eight separate incidents.

Republished by permission.

Burmese in Thailand: Essential Reading


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Crackdown on Burmese as Arrest Numbers Grow

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Andaman Island Sites Readied for Boat People

Burmese Detention Island Cause for Concern

Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion

Comments

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This article from 24-Dec is in Norwegian but tells a very similar story as your excellent piece. It created lots of reactions during Christmas from tourists.

http://www.dagbladet.no/2008/12/24/nyheter/thailand/flyktninger/burma/utenriks/4148390/

Posted by Anonymous on January 17, 2009 16:54


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