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A tourist leaves the water as Navy personnel oversee boatpeople prisoners

Phuket's Big Puzzle: Where Are The Boatpeople?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

LOCAL contacts confirmed today that two Thai Navy vessels were moored off Raya, a popular dive destination a short speedboat trip from Phuket. A third Navy vessel was said to have an unidentified boat in tow.

News Analysis

ROHINGYA boatpeople were said to be close to Phuket last night, spotted in a vessel near Raya island, a popular diving daytrip destination for tourists.

About 60 people had sought rice and help from a fisherman, a radio report said. Could the Navy come to intercede?

Then, after one radio message from a local villager, the code of silence descended. Phuketwan prepared to make a boat trip to greet the Rohingya, but officials would neither confirm nor deny the presence of would-be refugees.

Four Rohingya vessels from Burma or Bangladesh are said to be at sea now, destinations uncertain.

It is to be hoped they do not fall into the hands of the Thai military, because the policy of secrecy means their fate could remain unknown.

Since Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong broke the news last year that Thailand was greeting would-be refugees with detention on a secret island off Ranong and ''pushbacks'' in open sea, leading to the deaths of hundreds, further Thai military action has been veiled in secrecy.

This year the Associated Press, the New York Times and TIME magazine have thoroughly reported the persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of Bangladesh and Burma.

For many of the thousands of Rohingya, deprived of basic consideration and unrecognised as citizens in either country, ''the choice is between a crocodile and a snake,'' as one refugee told the Huffington Post.

What does that make Thailand, where far less attention is being paid to alarming breaches of human rights amid continuing secrecy and lack of proper scrutiny?

In Thailand, a boatload of Rohingya survivors has now been kept in detention for 13 months, at first in horrific conditions, with two deaths in custody.

The fate of the perpetual detainees still remains so disconcerting to them that the survivors reportedly went on hunger strike last week.

Last year's alarming treatment of the Rohingya brought international scrutiny. In pursuing Phuketwan's scoop, CNN correspondent Dan Rivers and his producers won the prestigious George Polk Award for television reporting for ''documenting abuses against Rohingya refugees by military forces in Thailand.''

This year, reporting on Rohingya and the military forces in Thailand is much tougher.

While Rivers extracted an admission from Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva that the ''pushbacks'' had taken place, no punishment was ever meted out to those who ordered the shocking rights abuses.

Since then, the all-powerful Internal Security Operations Command has simply made news about any boatloads of Rohingya arriving in Thailand harder to detect.

In the sailing season of 2007-2008, almost 5000 Rohingya arrived in Thailand. In 2008-2009, about 1200 arrivals were documented before the ''pushback'' story broke.

This sailing season, not a single Rohingya boat has been reported as reaching Thai waters, although departures are believed to have resumed.

Last year, it was the photographs taken by tourists that fully engaged the world in concern for the fate of the Rohingya, who had been virtually forgotten for 30 years.

The snapshots depicting horrors at the other end of the beach were taken by holidaymakers on islands around the Phuket-Andaman region, especially in the Similans, where the Navy laid out boatpeople in neat sandy rows to make sure they posed no threat of attack.

Real hardship would be delivered later, by those who coralled the unfortunate sailors behind barbed wire, then cut them loose on the open ocean to drift at great peril.

Since then, far from becoming more open and rejecting such future behavior, Thailand has simply adopted covert action as a cover.

So far this year, there have been no confirmed reports of boats, no international coverage, no further human rights abuses . . . just the occasional intercepted radio message amid aching silence.

Strange as it may seem, in the absence of an open approach on would-be refugees, tourists around Phuket and the Andaman remain the frontline force for human rights in Thailand.

If you have photos of Navy activity or boats under tow, please email them to
Pushbacks Exposed: Andaman Story of The Year
Behind the Front Page The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand magazine reports on how Phuketwan reporters revealed the Army's coverup of the horrifying boat people pushbacks.
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'Withered' Rohingya Rescued from Ranong
Latest Rohingya boatpeople have been evacuated from Ranong Immigration detention centre. A doctor says conditions there were so bad that two men died and more were endangered.
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Phuket Still Linked to Slavery and Trafficking
Latest The release of a brochure on people trafficking highlights the part Phuket played in a notorious smuggling incident. Not a lot has changed since then.
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LatestDesperation drives Rohingya, Burmese and others into the hands of human traffickers, putting their lives on the line. The Bali Process this week may provide answers that Thailand needs.
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Phuket's New Rohingya: Bought from a Smuggler
Latest Phuket's community of Rohingya is small but growing. The latest arrivals have been purchased from a people smuggler in a humanitarian effort by a poor Muslim community.
Phuket's New Rohingya: Bought from a Smuggler

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.
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Comments have been disabled for this article.


Publishing stories like this is why I come to your site for news.

Posted by Chris on March 9, 2010 11:03


Dear Editor, how can you write such negative stores about Thailand.....and get away with it?

I would like to know if there is footage of this somewhere: "
"documenting abuses against Rohingya refugees by military forces in Thailand.''

Thank you for keeping us informed.

Editor: We are reporting news in the best interests of Thailand by highlighting the lack of transparency surrounding the treatment of would-be refugees.

This recent treatment includes human rights abuses, committed in Thailand's name, that make Thailand look bad in the eyes of the entire international community.

Indeed, if you look back through Phuketwan's substantial coverage, you will see that it was a Thai Navy officer who first called for UN intervention in this process.

We acted on his suggestion, as we continue to act, with Thailand's best interests at heart. Indeed, acting in the best interests of Thailand, the Navy, the marine police and local police all once voluntarily supplied us with photographs of Rohingya being arrested.

Those uniformed branches have, so we believe, behaved professionally throughout, but are now under different orders.

The 30-minute special made by Dan Rivers for CNN is well worth a viewing.

There are certainly issues that involve ''security'' and are sensitive in every country. In democracies, the treatment of refugees is not one of them.

Posted by VFaye on March 9, 2010 13:58


That photo really expresses the weirdness of life here in Phuket -- how the decadent and downtrodden share so much of the same space...

Posted by L on March 9, 2010 14:08


"L", are you decadent or downtrodden, or - happily - neither?

Posted by Bryony Goldman on March 9, 2010 16:04


Interesting article. But wait? IS it an article at all? To me it appears Phuketwan is on "a mission" of some sort! Be careful what you write, just some friendly advise...

Editor: Our only ''mission'' as journalists is to make sure that Thailand's treatment of would-be refugees receives the coverage it deserves. We'd like to report that the treatment is up to international standards. If that's the case, there is nothing to hide.

Posted by BOM on March 9, 2010 16:12


The picture that you posted with this new was an old picture from Similan Island last year. Most of readers will confuse with the mismatch between photo and your article. I would suggest you to added date of your photo to make this article clearer. Another suggestion before writing news; write down the fact. NOT GUESS!

Editor: The credit on the photo says /file. That means it's a /file photo. Most of our readers will not be confused. What more can you tell us?

Posted by Panuphun on March 9, 2010 21:31

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