Human Rights Tragedy on Phuket's Doorstep
LARGE numbers of Rohingya have been sailing ''like sardines in a can'' to the Andaman coast of Thailand this month, seeking refuge from starvation and persecution.
A call came on Phuket today for the United Nations to take action. The call came from a Royal Thai Navy spokesman.
Between December 5 and December 13 a total of 576 of the Rohingya, or Burmese Muslims, arrived in Thai waters in five boats, according to the spokesman.
The largest group of 210 were travelling on a single boat and were taken into custody on Surin island, roughly offshore from the border between the provinces of Ranong and Phang Nga, on Saturday.
Five navy vessels now on constant patrol apprehended the other four boatloads of Rohingya in the same region.
Once the boats come within Thai waters, 12 nautical miles off the coast, the Thai navy apprehends them.
The Rohingya, all adult males, are now being held and interrogated by Internal Security Operations Command 4 in the Thailand-Burma border city of Ranong.
Lieutenant Commander Pomprom Sakultem told Phuketwan that he was concerned because Surin island is a popular destination for divers and other tourists.
''If something happens, it will not be good for Thailand,'' he said. ''It is a problem that the United Nations needs to solve.''
All five boatloads of Rohingya were short of food and water, he added. The men on board were in poor condition.
''They were like sardines in a can,'' Lieutenant Commander Pomprom said.
''We need human rights organisations to become involved.
''These people are sailing south because they know they will not be shot at by Thais the way that the Burmese shoot at them.''
In 2006, according to the lieutenant commander, 1225 Rohingya were apprehended. That figure rose to 2763 the following year.
So far in 2008, a total of 4886 Rohingya have been apprehended.
Thai authorities view the arrival of the Rohingya as a security concern because all of the travellers are men.
It is feared their aim may be to link up with Muslim insurgents in Thailand's ''Deep South'' provinces, where bombings and murders are a regular occurrence.
Information on the Rohingya is hard to glean but reports on the Internet say that they are denied citizenship in Burma/Myanmar and being pushed across the border into Bangladesh in large numbers.
Many children are reportedly dying of disease or starvation in primitive refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The journey by sea from Bangladesh could take 10 or 14 days, and earlier this year at least one of the boatloads came ashore not far north of Phuket.
Alarmed local villagers contacted local authorities, and the travellers were quickly arrested.
When Samak Sundaravej was Prime Minister, Cabinet discussed putting the Rohingya in detention on an island off Thailand for an indefinite period to dissuade others from coming.
The thought of tourists riding past the detainees each day and an outcry from human rights activists led to the idea being shelved, although not before the Navy was tasked with finding a suitable island.
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