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Khun Ead on the blue boat: happy to help the army, pay or no pay

Boat People: Behind the Fear and Barbed Wire

Thursday, January 29, 2009
Photo Album Above

Filed for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong

FOR THE past couple months, fisherman Ead Sonchoi has had a sideline - helping the Thai army maintain its secret detention camp for Rohingya refugees on the island of Koh Sai Daeng.

It was Khun Ead who delivered the barbed wire that corralled the boat people on the island. Then he delivered food and water for the detainees, who sometimes numbered in their hundreds.

Then, ''about two weeks ago'', he took the barbed wire back to the mainland.

Sometimes he was paid for his services by the army, sometimes not. Either way, Khun Ead said he was happy to help the army, because of concerns among locals about the increasing numbers of Rohingya washing up on the Andaman coast.

''We were worried,'' he told the Post. ''There were never any women in the boats and that made us concerned that they might harm us if they roamed free.''

Khun Ead's village of La-Ong is small and undistinguished, except for an unusual blue boat moored by the village's rough dock.

Women in the village, about 20 kilometres south of Ranong township and not far from the local army headquarters, told us the boat had been sailed to Thailand by Rohingya boat people.

It had been given to the villagers by the army and was now on sale for 20,000 baht, minus the engine.

Khun Ead said talk about the Rohingya along the coast over the past six weeks alarmed villagers to the point where they were happy to help in apprehending the Rohingya and keeping them captive.

''We were told that seven Burmese fishermen had been killed when starving Rohingya attacked their boat in search of food,'' he said.

The Thai army last week said it funded an operation in which villagers were trained to round up Rohingya who were then detained at secluded locations before being ''escorted'' or ''pushed back'' to sea.

The army has said the Rohingya were not mistreated, and some senior officers have denied that they were towed out to sea and abandoned in unpowered boats, as described by the South China Morning Post in a series of reports since January 12.

Khun Ead said he knew nothing about such treatment. Khun Ead defended the army's handling of the Rohingya, saying that while captive on the island, they received plenty of food and were under the supervision of a doctor.

There were times, he says, when as many as 500 Rohingya would be held in a rough barbed wire pen on the beach at Koh Sai Daeng.

A photo of the enclosure was published on the front page of the South China Morning Post last week.

When numbers built to that level, he was kept busy transporting rice and fresh drinking water to the island.

In his time connected with the army's use of Koh Sai Daeng, he said about seven Rohingya went missing, in spite of the daily headcounts, barbed wire and constant army vigil.

The island is a long swim from the mainland and from the neighbouring tourist of destinations, Koh Chang and Koh Phrayam.

Two Rohingya were recently arrested in the nearby village settlement of Koh Sai Dam.

Dr Pornthip: 'PM Asked Me to Check Boat People'
Latest Photo Album
Thailand's top forensic scientist says she has been asked by the Prime Minister to investigate the issue of Rohingya boat people. The latest 66 arrivals have been jailed.
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Boat People in Thailand: Phuketwan Reports
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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.
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