ROHINGYA IN THAILAND: PERSECUTED, SOLD TO HUMAN TRAFFICKERS AND ABANDONED AT SEA

ROHINGYA AND THAILAND

Over the years, thousands of Rohingya—a persecuted Bengali-speaking Muslim minority that lives mostly in Myanmar— have fled to Thailand. At one time there were are roughly 111,000 Rohingya refugees housed in 9 camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. There have been charges that groups of them have been shipped and towed out to open sea from Thailand, and left there. In July 2012, the Myanmar Government did not include the Rohingya minority group–-classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government's list of more than 130 ethnic races and therefore the government says that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “Due to the short distance between these camps and Thailand's western coastal areas, they began to come by boats in the mid-1990s, before it became headline news. Gradually the numbers became bigger and the influx more frequent, especially during this time of the year when the sea is usually calmer. They would arrive in Ranong and other coastal provinces through vast transnational human smuggling rings, either on transit to Malaysia or Indonesia, or in search for a better life in Thailand. Most of them being Muslims would like to find jobs or be settled in the same religious environment. But quite often, at the first transit point, they usually ended up being exploited in Thailand. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, January 26, 2009==]

“During the Surayud Chulanont government from 2006 to 2008, Thai authorities were instructed not to push them back out into the sea as it could endanger their lives. Instead, the visitors would be detained and given food and transported to the Thai-Burma border either in Kanchanaburi or Tha Songyang. They were sent across the border safely. However, the soft Thai response has encouraged human smuggling rings to increase their operations as no risks were involved for them. If they failed, these asylum seekers would eventually end up in the refugee camps along the Burma-Bangladesh border. Out of desperation, some of these refugees attempted to come to Thailand again. ==

“Upon closer scrutiny, it is a real blessing in disguise that the Rohinya problem blew up in the face of the Abhisit-led government. First of all, given his professed high moral ground, Abhisit will definitely act on issues related to human rights and freedom of expression sooner than later. Secondly, the rohingya refugees also exposed the Thai government's limit, or for that matter what the countries at the receiving end can do on a human tragedy of this scale that they have not created. Thirdly, their plight will enable the public and global communities to understand the problem's root cause and solve it at the source. Finally, it's hoped this travesty would prompt all stakeholders to cooperate and provide more assistance, especially the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations. ==

Rohingya and Their History

About 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State, a region of Burma traditionally known as Arakan. A Muslim people, they descended from South Asians and speak a regional dialect of Bengali. Most are stateless, recognized as citizens neither by Myanmar nor neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya language is an Indo-European language linguistically related to the Chittagonian language spoken in the southernmost part of Bangladesh bordering Burma. The Rohingya people practice Sunni Islam with elements of Sufi worship. Because the government restricts educational opportunities for them, many pursue fundamental Islamic studies as their only educational option. Mosques and religious schools are present in most villages. Traditionally, men pray in congregations and women pray at home.

Muslim settlements have existed in Arakan since the arrival of Arabs there in the A.D. 8th century. In the 14th through 18the centuries, the Arakanese kings were Buddhists but the used Muslim titles., compared themselves to Sultans and fashioned themselves after Mughal rulers. They employed Muslims in prestigious positions within the royal administration. Following the Burmese conquest of Arakan in 1785, as many as 35,000 Arakanese people fled to the neighbouring Chittagong region of British Bengal in 1799 to avoid Burmese persecution and seek protection from British India. The Burmese rulers executed thousands of Arakanese men and deported a considerable portion of the Arakanese population to central Burma, leaving Arakan as a scarcely populated area by the time the British occupied it.

British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as agriculturalists. The East India Company extended the Bengal administration to Arakan, thus there was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan, and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work. In addition, thousands of Rakhine people from Arakan also settled in Bengal. The impact of huge waves of south Asian immigration to Burma under the British was particularly acute in Arakan, one of less populated regions. In 1939, the British authorities, alert to the long-term animosity between the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims, recommended securing the border between India and Burma, however, with the onset of World War II, the British retreated from Arakan.

Persecuted Rohingya

Myanmar's Buddhist-majority government regards the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992. The United Nations calls them "virtually friendless" and one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They live under severe government restrictions. Stateless Rohingya cannot freely travel or marry and have limited access to education and healthcare. Many Rohingya have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Myanmar border.

According to Amnesty International, the Muslim Rohingya people have continued to suffer from human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978, and many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh as a result: “The Rohingyas’ freedom of movement is severely restricted and the vast majority of them have effectively been denied Burma citizenship. They are also subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps, although the amount of forced labour in northern Rakhine State has decreased over the last decade.

In 1978 over 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, following the ‘Nagamin’ (‘Dragon King’) operation of the Myanmar army. Officially this campaign aimed at "scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally." This military campaign directly targeted civilians, and resulted in widespread killings, rape and destruction of mosques and further religious persecution.

During 1991–92 a new wave of over a quarter of a million Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. They reported widespread forced labour, as well as summary executions, torture, and rape. Rohingyas were forced to work without pay by the Burmese army on infrastructure and economic projects, often under harsh conditions. Many other human rights violations occurred in the context of forced labour of Rohingya civilians by the security forces. Over the years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has successfully repatriated at least 230,000 Rohingyas back to Burma. The rest are staying in the two main camps - Nayapara and Kutupalong in Cox's Bazar - without any real prospects of going home.

As of 2005, the UNHCR had been assisting with the repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps have threatened this effort. Despite earlier efforts by the UN, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees have remained in Bangladesh, unable to return because of the negative attitude of the ruling regime in Myanmar. Now they are facing problems in Bangladesh as well where they do not receive support from the government any longer.

Rohingya Exodus from Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “One afternoon in October, in the watery no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar, Muhammad Ismail vanished. Thai immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold Ismail, 23, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims to human traffickers, who then spirited them into brutal jungle camps. As thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters investigation in three countries has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“Rohingya are Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh, where they are usually stateless and despised as illegal immigrants. In 2012, two eruptions of violence between Rohingyas and majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in western Myanmar killed at least 192 people and made 140,000 homeless. Most were Rohingya, who live in wretched camps or under apartheid-like segregation with little access to healthcare, schools or jobs. */*

“And so they have fled Myanmar by sea in unprecedented numbers in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War. Rohingya men, women and children squeeze aboard overloaded fishing boats and cargo ships to cross the Bay of Bengal. Their desired destination is Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country where at least 31,000 Rohingya already live. Many of these refugees were waylaid in Thailand, where the Thai navy and marine police worked with smugglers to extract money for their onward trip to Malaysia. Widespread bias against the Rohingya in the region, however, makes it difficult for them to find safe haven - and easy to fall into the hands of traffickers. "No one is there to speak for them," says Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. "They are a lost people." */*

Thailand Secretly Supplies Rohingya Refugees to Human Trafficking Rings

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “One afternoon in October, in the watery no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar, Muhammad Ismail vanished. Thai immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold Ismail, 23, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims to human traffickers, who then spirited them into brutal jungle camps. As thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters investigation in three countries has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of dollars to release them. Reporters located three such camps - two based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor. Thousands of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews.*/*

“The Thai authorities say the movement of Rohingya through their country doesn't amount to human trafficking. But in interviews for this story, the Thai Royal Police acknowledged, for the first time, a covert policy called "option two" that relies upon established human-smuggling networks to rid Thailand of Rohingya detainees. */*

“Ismail was one of five Rohingya who said that Thai immigration officials had sold him outright or aided in their sale to human traffickers. "It seemed so official at first," said Ismail, a wiry farmer with a long narrow face and tight curly hair. "They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had been sold." Ismail said he ended up in a camp in southern Thailand. So did Bozor Mohamed, a Rohingya whose frail body makes him seem younger than his 21 years. The camp was guarded by men with guns and clubs, said Mohamed, and at least one person died every day due to dehydration or disease. "I used to be a strong man," the former rice farmer said in an interview, as he massaged his withered legs. */*

“Mohamed and others say they endured hunger, filth and multiple beatings. Mohamed's elbow and back are scarred from what he said were beatings administered by his captors in Thailand while he telephoned his brother-in-law in Malaysia, begging him to pay the $2,000 ransom they demanded. Some men failed to find a benefactor in Malaysia to pay their ransom. The camp became their home. "They had long beards and their hair was so long, down to the middle of their backs, that they looked liked women," said Mohamed. */*

“What ultimately happens to Rohingya who can't buy their freedom remains unclear. A Thai-based smuggler said some are sold to shipping companies and farms as manual laborers for 5,000 to 50,000 baht each, or $155 to $1,550. "Prices vary according to their skills," said the smuggler, who spoke on condition of anonymity.” */*

“The Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group based in Thailand, says it has interviewed scores of Rohingya who have passed through the Thai camps and into Malaysia. Many Rohingya who can't pay end up as cooks or guards at the camps, said Chris Lewa, Arakan Project's director. Thai officials might have profited from Rohingya smuggling in the past, said Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit, Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police. He also confirmed the existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called "holding bays". Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the U.S. FBI, was also asked about the camps Reuters discovered. "We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand," he said, "but we are not investigating this issue." */*

Rohingyas Detained in Thailand Under Horrible Conditions

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Hundreds of Rohingyas were arrested in two headline-grabbing raids by the Thai authorities on January 9, 2014 in the towns of Padang Besar and Sadao, both near the Malaysia border. At the time, Colonel Krissakorn Paleetunyawong, deputy commander of police in the area, declared the Rohingya would be deported back to Myanmar. That never happened. Ismail and Mohamed were among the 393 Rohingya that Thai police say were arrested that day in Padang Besar. So was Ismail's friend Ediris, 22. The three young men all hailed from Buthedaung, a poor township in northern Rakhine State. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“After their arrest, Ediris and Ismail were brought to an immigration detention center (IDC) in Sadao, where they joined another 300 Rohingya rounded up from a nearby smuggler's house. The two-story IDC, designed for a few dozen inmates, was overflowing. Women and children were moved to sheltered housing, while some men were sent to other IDCs across Thailand. */*

“Men and teenage boys languished for months in cramped, cage-like cells, often with barely enough room to sit or stand, much less walk. In June, Reuters journalists visited an IDC in Phang Nga, near the tourist Mecca of Phuket. There were 269 men and boys crammed into a space built for no more than 100. It reeked of urine and sweat. Some detainees used crutches because their muscles had atrophied. A doctor who inspected Sadao's IDC in July said he found five emaciated Rohingya clinging to life. Two died on their way to hospital, said the doctor, Anatachai Thaipratan, an advisor of the Thai Islamic Medical Association. */*

In early August 2013, 270 Rohingya rioted at the IDC in Phang Nga. Men tore off doors separating cells, demanding to be let outside to pray at the close of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Over the last three weeks of August, more than 300 Rohingya fled from five detention centers. By this time, Mohamed, the 21-year-old refugee, could no longer walk, let alone escape. His leg muscles had wasted away from months in detention in a cell shared by 95 Rohingya men. Ismail and Ediris were shuttled between various IDCs, ending up in Nong Khai, a city on Thailand's northern border with Laos.

Efforts to Deport Royingya to Myanmar

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “With about 1,700 Rohingya locked up nationwide, the Thai government set a July 2013 deadline to deport them all and opened talks with Myanmar on how to do it. The talks went nowhere, because the Myanmar government refused to take responsibility for what it regards as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. As the plight of Rohingya detainees made world headlines, pressure mounted on Thailand. But Myanmar wouldn't take them, nor would Malaysia. With thousands more arriving, the U.N.'s refugee agency issued an urgent appeal for alternative housing. The government proposed building a "mega camp" in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, another province in southern Thailand. It was rejected after an outcry from local people. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

Thailand saw its options rapidly dwindling, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It couldn't protest to Myanmar's government to improve the lives of Rohingya and stem the exodus, the official said. That could ruffle diplomatic feathers and even jeopardize the access of Thai companies hoping to invest in Myanmar, one of the world's hottest frontier markets. Nor could Thailand arrest, prosecute and jail the Rohingya for breaking Thai immigration law - there were simply too many of them. "There would be no room in our prison cells," Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal said.

Royingya Sold to Human Traffickers Rather Than Deported

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “That growing problem gave birth to "option two" in October, a secret policy to deport the refugees back to Myanmar that led to Rohingyas being sold to human trafficking networks. A hint of the policy shift came weeks earlier, on September 13, when Police Lt. Gen. Panu Kerdlarppol, chief of the Immigration Bureau, met with officials from other agencies on the resort island of Koh Samui to decide what to do with the Rohingya. Afterwards, Kerdlarppol announced that immigration authorities would take statements from the Rohingya "to arrange their deportation" and see if any want to go home. Arrangements would be made for those who did. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“By early October, 2,058 Rohingya were held in 14 IDCs across Thailand, according to the Internal Security Operations Command, a national security agency run by the Thai military. A month later, that number stood at about 600, according to non-governmental organizations and Muslim aid workers. By the first week of December, it was 154, Thailand's immigration department said. Rohingya were fast disappearing from Thailand's IDCs, and nobody knew where they were going. */*

“Major General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok admitted there was an unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar. He called this "a natural way or option two." But he said the Rohingya went voluntarily. "Some Rohingya in our IDCs can't stand being in limbo, so they ask to return to where they came from," said Chatchawal. "This means going back to Myanmar." Rohingya at the IDCs, for instance, sign statements in the presence of a local Islamic leader, in which they agree they want to return to Myanmar. These statements, however, were at times produced in the absence of a Rohingya language translator. */*

“Chatchawal was also presented with recent testimony from Rohingya who said they weren't taken to back to Myanmar. Instead, they were put in boats by Thai immigration officials, told they had been sold and taken under duress to Thailand's camps. Reporters interviewed four Rohingya for this story who said they fell prey to trafficking with official complicity. */*

“Chatchawal said Thai officials might have received money previously in exchange for Rohingya, but not anymore. "In the past, and I stress in the past, there may have been cases of officials taking payments for handing over migrants to boats," he said. "I am not ruling it out, but I don't know of any specific cases recently." He said it was possible the Rohingya were intercepted by brokers and never made it to Myanmar. "Once they've crossed that border, that red line in the sea, they are Myanmar's responsibility," he said. */*

“He also admitted the camps uncovered by Reuters exist in breach of Thai laws. He referred to them as "temporary shelters" for a people who ultimately want to reach Malaysia. The smugglers who run the camps "extort money from Rohingya" but police don't accept bribes from them, he said. As for the trafficking way stations in Padang Besar and Sadao, Chatchawal said: "I do believe there could be more camps like these. They could be hidden deep in the jungle." */*

Ramong, Thailand: the Center of the Rohingya Trafficking Trade

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Central to the policy was Ranong, a sparsely populated Thai province whose geography has always made it a smugglers' paradise. Ranong shares a long, ill-policed land and sea border with Myanmar. Its coastline is blanketed in dense mangrove forest and dotted with small, often uninhabited islands. The provincial capital, also called Ranong, was built on tin mining but now lives off fishing and tourism. Rust-streaked trawlers from Thailand and Burma ply the same waters as dive boats and yachts. So do wooden "long-tail" boats, named after their extended drive-shafts, which ferry Burmese migrant workers to the Myanmar port of Kawthaung, only a 30-minute voyage away. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“By late October, hundreds of Rohingya were being packed onto immigration trucks and driven to Ranong for processing and deportation. Among them were Ismail and Ediris, who arrived in the port city after a grueling, standing room-only journey of 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) from Nong Khai. At Ranong's IDC, they were photographed and told by Thai immigration officers they were being sent back to Myanmar. "They said no other countries were accepting Rohingya, and Myanmar had become peaceful," said Ismail.

Then they were driven to a Ranong pier and herded onto four long-tail boats, each with a three-man crew of Thais and Burmese. Once at sea, the Rohingya asked the boat driver to help them. The Burmese-speaking driver shook his head and told the Rohingya they had been sold by Thai immigration officials for 11,000 baht ($350) each. "They told us we now belonged to them," said Ismail.

At the house where Ediris and Ismail were interviewed were two other survivors of the trafficking camps: Abdul Basser, 24, and Fir Mohamed, 28. They told similar stories. Both were arrested after arriving in Thailand on January 25, and held at the overcrowded Phang Nga IDC for about eight months. On October 17, the two men, along with dozens of other Rohingya, were driven overnight to Ranong. "We were told we could go back to Myanmar," said Mohamed. That day, 48 Rohingya and five Buddhist Burmese were loaded into trucks and driven to a pier. The five Burmese were put on one boat; the Rohingya were put on another. After about a half hour at sea, the captain cut the engine. "We thought the engine had stalled or broke down," said Basser. "The captain told us we could not go back to Myanmar, that we had been sold by the immigration and police," he added.

Jungle Camps for Trafficked Rohingya

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “After about 30 minutes at sea, the boats stopped. It was early afternoon on October 23. The vessels waited until about 6 p.m., when a large fishing boat arrived. They were loaded aboard and sailed through the night until they reached a jungle island, separated from the mainland by a narrow river. It was about 4 a.m. Ismail said he saw about 200 other Rohingya in that camp, mostly sleeping and guarded by men with guns. The guards shoved Ismail and the others into a muddy clearing. There was no water or food. He was told he must pay 60,000 Thai baht ($1,850). Did he have family who could send the money? If he did, he could go wherever he wanted, Ismail said he was told. "If you don't, we'll use this," one guard said, showing an iron rod. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

“Bozor Mohamed, the third young Rohingya from Buthedaung, said he was held for 10 days at a jungle camp in Padang Besar. He, too, said he had been delivered by Thai officials to trafficking boats along the maritime border with Myanmar. Afterwards, in torrential rain and under cover of darkness, along with perhaps 200 other Rohingya, Mohamed said he was ferried back across the strait to Thailand, where a new ordeal began. The men were taken on a two-day journey by van, motor-bike, and foot to a smuggler's camp on the border with Malaysia. On the final hike, men with canes beat the young Rohingya and the others, many of them hobbled by months of detention. They stumbled and dragged themselves up steep forested hills. */*

“Making the same trek was Mohamed Hassan, a fourth Rohingya to escape Thailand's trafficking network. Hassan is a baby-faced 19-year-old from the Rakhine capital of Sittwe. He said he arrived at the camp in September after an overnight journey in a pick-up truck, followed by a two-hour walk into the hills with dozens of other Rohingya. Their captors ordered them to carry supplies, he said. Already giddy with fatigue and hunger after eight days at sea, the 19-year-old shouldered a sack of rice. "If we stopped, the men beat us with sticks," he said.*/*

The camp was partially skirted by a barbed-wire fence, he said, and guarded by about 25 men with guns, knives and clubs. Hassan reckoned it held about 300 Rohingya. They slept on plastic sheets, unprotected from the sun and rain, and were allowed only one meal a day, of rice and dried fish. He said he was constantly hungry. */*

One night, two Rohingya men tried to escape. The guards tracked them down, bound their hands and dragged them back to camp. Then, the guards beat the two men with clubs, rods and lengths of rubber. "Everybody watched," said Hassan. "We said nothing. Some people were crying." The beating lasted some 30 minutes, he said. Then a guard drew a small knife and slit the throat of one of the fugitives. The prisoners were ordered to dispose of his corpse in the forest. The other victim was dumped in a stream. Afterwards, Hassan vomited with fear and exhaustion, but tried not to cry. "When I cried they beat me. I had already decided that I would die there." */*

“His only hope of release was his older brother, 42, a long-time resident of Thailand. Hassan said he had his brother's telephone number with him, but at first his captors wouldn't let him call it. (Traffickers are reluctant to deal with relatives in Thailand, in case they have contacts with the Thai authorities that could jeopardize operations.) */*

“Reporters were able to trace the location of three trafficking camps, based on the testimony of Rohingya who previously were held in them. Three journalists traveled on motor-bikes and then hiked through rubber plantations and dense jungle to directly confirm the existence of a major camp near Baan Klong Tor.Concealed by a blue tarpaulin tent, the Rohingya were split into groups of men and women. Some prayed. The encampment was patrolled by armed guards and protected by villagers and police. The reporters didn't attempt to enter. Villagers who have visited the camp said the number of people held inside ranged from an estimated 500 to a thousand or more, depending on the number of people arriving, departing or escaping. Interviews with about a dozen villagers also confirmed two other large camps: one less than a mile away, and another in Padang Besar, near the Malaysia border. */*

Escaping the Jungle Camps for Trafficked Rohingya

Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Ismail had some cash but not enough. "We need to escape," he whispered to Ediris. After an hour at the camp, just before dawn, the two men made their move. A guard fired shots in the air as they ran through the jungle and waded through a river to reach the mainland. For the next 24 hours, they survived by drinking stream-water and eating the bark of banana trees. They emerged onto a rubber plantation, their feet lacerated from the bare-foot jungle trek, and met a Burmese man who promised to spirit them into Malaysia for 8,000 baht, or $250, each.They agreed and were driven to a house in southern Thailand, where Reuters interviewed them hours before they were smuggled by pick-up across the Malaysian border. [Source: Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, December 4, 2013 */*]

Mohamed and Basser, too, escaped after being brought to an island near mainland Thailand. Eventually, Hassan reached his brother, who said he sold his motorbike to help raise the equivalent of about $3,000 to secure Hassan's freedom, after 20 days in the camp.

Thailand Abandons Rohingya Migrants at Sea

In December 2008 and January and February 2009 hundreds of Rohingya—a stateless Muslim ethnic group who are persecuted in Myanmar — were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters. They were found hungry and thirsty. Some were covered with welts. They said they were detained and beaten before being set adrift with few supplies by Thai security forces. Rights groups fear scores may have perished. A photograph apparently showing the Thai army towing refugees out to sea were published in the media. Similar images were shown by CNN. The United Nations, human rights groups and several countries expressed concern for the migrants' welfare. Thai authorities initially denied wrongdoing, insisting they only repatriated illegal migrants.

Reuters reported: “Rickety wooden boats crowded with hundreds of Rohingya have reached Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in the last two months, the latest in an annual trickle of people fleeing by sea in search of better lives. The Thai army admitted towing hundreds far out to sea before abandoning them, but insisted they had food and water and denied reports the boats' engines were sabotaged. Of 1,000 Rohingya given such treatment since early December, 550 are thought to have drowned. Although most Rohingya are heading for Malaysia, where a sizeable diaspora lives, 1,000 Thais in the southern province of Ranong protested against the migrants, saying they would not allow any sort of temporary refugee shelter. [Source: Reuters, February 4, 2012*]

“In addition to the Rohingyas living in Myanmar, 230,000 Rohingya live a precarious, stateless existence in Bangladesh, having fled decades of abuse and harassment at the hands of Myanmar's Buddhist military rulers, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A popular migration route has been by boat from Bangladesh or Myanmar to Thailand then overland to Malaysia. As of late January 2009, nearly 650 Rohingyas had been rescued in the territorial waters of India and Indonesia. In February 2009 there was evidence of the Thai army towing a boatload of 190 Rohingya refugees out to sea. A group of refugees rescued by Indonesian authorities also in February 2009 told harrowing stories of being captured and beaten by the Thai military, and then abandoned at open sea. *

The Economist reported: “Located in a poor neighbourhood, Thailand is cautious about giving refugees a generous welcome. Doing so, it worries, might draw millions more across its borders, especially from Myanmar... But there is no excuse for the astoundingly callous way Thailand has treated around 1,000 refugees from the Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar: beating them and casting them adrift on the seas without adequate supplies. Around 650 survivors have washed up in Indonesia and India in recent weeks; hundreds more may have drowned. In late January 2009, Thailand was still dodging questions from the United Nations' refugee agency about a further 126 Rohingyas whom the UN believes Thailand recently had in its custody but who may also have been dumped at sea. [Source: The Economist, January 29, 2009**]

“The army, the source of so much other trouble in Thailand, is to blame. The Rohingya operation was overseen by ISOC, an army unit formed to fight communist insurgents during the cold war, whose powers were restored by the military-backed government that ran the country for 15 months after the 2006 coup. The army's denials have been undercut by photographs obtained by CNN, showing soldiers towing rickety boats full of Rohingyas out to sea and cutting them loose.” **

Rohingya Migrants Rescued at Sea by Indonesia

In early February 2009, the Indonesian navy found 198 Rohingya floating in a boat off the coast of Aceh after 21 days at sea. Despite pleas from some of the men that they faced death if sent back to Myanmar, Jakarta has said it considered them economic migrants who would be deported. Associated Press reported: “ Indonesia's navy picked up 198 starving, dehydrated boat people from Myanmar who said they drifted for three weeks after authorities in Thailand forced them to sea in a boat without an engine, an official said. Twenty-two others died on the small wooden vessel during the crossing, the survivors told Indonesian officials. It was the latest in a string of accusations that Thai authorities have been habitually abusing boat people fleeing the military dictatorship in Myanmar by abandoning them to die at sea. Thailand has repeatedly denied the accusations. [Source: AP, February 3, 2009 >>]

“Indonesian fishermen discovered the 40-foot (12-meter) boat off Aceh's coast in northern Sumatra and towed it to shore Monday, navy officer Tedi Sutardi told The Associated Press. The passengers had run out of food and water. "They were standing on the boat for 21 days because there was no space to sit," Sutardi said. "It is a miracle they survived." At least 91 were admitted to the Idirayeuk General Hospital in weak condition due to "lack of fluid and malnutrition," hospital director Edie Gunawan said. A 13-year-old boy was among those with severe dehydration, said emergency nurse Muji. >>

“The drifting boat was the second load of Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim group facing decades of persecution in Myanmar, to arrive in Indonesia in a month. Other boatloads have been found near India's Andaman Islands. The boat people in Indonesia recounted being beaten and set adrift by Thai authorities, Sutardi said. One survivor told investigators the group was among 1,000 Rohingyas working in Thailand as migrant laborers, Sutardi said. They spoke of being forced to leave Thailand on nine motorless boats in December after being detained as illegal workers. Some of them were beaten and "we could see they had black and blue marks on their backs," Sutardi said. >>

Reporting from Idi Yaueuk in northern Sumatra, about 160 kilometers across the Andaman Sea from Thailand, Hideaki Hayashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority recently found drifting in boats off the Indonesian island of Sumatra are causing a headache for nearby countries over whether to accept them. After fleeing their homeland, the Rohingya reportedly were rounded up by the Thai military and treated harshly before being set adrift. The Indonesian government would not grant them refugee status, arguing that they fled predominantly Buddhist Myanmar for economic reasons. But calls to protect the Rohingya have been mounting, both in Indonesia and other countries. [Source: Hideaki Hayashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 11, 2009 +]

“At a camp in the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province, one of the Rohingya boat people said angrily, "I hate both Myanmar and Thailand." According to this man and others, about 1,200 Rohingya migrants, including some from Bangladesh, fled Myanmar in December and were detained by the Thai military before being cast adrift. "The Thai military treated us terribly," he said. "We were set adrift on a boat after being given only a small amount of rice and water." The boat, carrying 220 people, drifted for about three weeks before being discovered by an Indonesian fishing boat on Feb. 2. Twenty-two people died from thirst and hunger. ++

“Another group of 193 Rohingya boat people was detained in a different camp in the province. They also complained about violence at the hands of the Thai military. But the Thai government denied allegations of mistreatment, saying it had dealt with the Rohingya humanely, but would not allow them to stay in the country illegally. The Rohingya are seeking permission to work and stay in Indonesia or Australia. But the Indonesian government is sticking to its position, arguing that the Rohingya did not cite political persecution as a reason for seeking refugee status. Amnesty International has asked the countries concerned not to send the Rohingya back to Myanmar, saying they are not recognized as citizens by the Myanmar junta, but treated as "stateless persons" whose activities are restricted. +

Report: 400 Rohingya Migrants Abandoned at Sea, 300 Die

In January 2009, AP reported: “Thailand`s navy abandoned hundreds of illegal migrants on a barge in the Indian Ocean where about 300 desperate people with little food and water later drowned, a refugees` advocacy group said. Thai authorities have repeatedly denied the 400 migrants were left to die in the ocean in December 2008. “We deport illegal immigrants, but we adhere to internationally accepted practice,” Immigration police chief Lt-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit said. Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Bangkok-based advocacy group Arakan Project, said at least two survivors recounted their experience to her. She said they told her four illegal migrants were tied up and thrown into the ocean after the group refused to board the barge from a Thai navy vessel. [Source: AP, January 16, 2009,++]

“Reports of the Thai navy setting illegal immigrants adrift began circulating late last month after authorities rescued more than 100 workers from Bangladesh and Myanmar adrift on a vessel near India`s Andaman Islands. Thousands of Bangladeshi and Myanmar refugees leave aboard rickety boats each year in hope of finding work in neighbouring countries. In the last three years, one of the most popular migration routes was by boat to Thailand and then overland to Malaysia, Lewa said. The trip costs several hundred dollars. ++

“Lewa said these particular migrants` troubles first started in early December when authorities intercepted several boatloads approaching Thai shores. Survivors told Lewa they were rounded up and detained on a remote Thai island in the Andaman sea, where they were bound, beaten, and given little food. Later, the migrants were herded onto a navy boat that was towing a barge, Lewa said. After several hours at sea, the Thai navy then ordered the migrants to board the barge. “When the navy asked them to move to the barge, they refused. ++

“The navy tried to intimidate them by pointing guns at them. But they still refused to move,” Lewa said, recounting her interviews with survivors. “Then they tied the legs of some of them and threw four overboard. So when the rest of the people saw that, they moved onto the barge,” she said. Survivors said the Thai sailors left them with only two barrels of water and four bags of rice, according to Lewa. The barge drifted for days before many of the desperate migrants jumped overboard, thinking they were close to shore. Only 10 of their bodies have been found by Indian authorities who began searching after finding the barge adrift.” ++

In January 2009, 78 Rohingya were brought to shore by Thai police and handed over too authorities. It is not quite clear whether the move indicated a change of tactics or was just a publicity stunt staged for foreign media critical of soldiers setting the refugees adrift in the sea.

Rohingya Boat People Get Their Day in Thai Courts

In late January 2009, AP reported: “A group of 62 barefoot, dishevelled Rohingya migrants facing illegal entry charges in a Thai court yesterday pleaded not to be sent back to Burma where they said they were beaten, whipped and warned not to return by soldiers. The 62 had been on a rickety boat filled with 78 migrants - many with wounds and burns - whom the Thai navy detained on Monday in the Andaman Sea, off Thailand's south-western coast. [Source: Ambika Ahuja, AP, January 29, 2009 =]

“If found guilty, the migrants could be expelled from Thailand, said the Ranong Police Colonel, Weerasilp Kwanseng, an outcome that other officials have said is expected. Four of the migrants were treated in hospital and 12 children detained by immigration police because they are too young to be tried in a court, Colonel Weerasilp said. "Have pity on us," one of the migrants, 50-year-old Mamoud Hussain, said outside the courthouse. "They'll kill me and my family if I go back." =

“Colonel Weerasilp said if the court charges the Rohingyas with illegal entry they will be turned over to immigration police who could expel them. But Rohingyas are denied citizenship and oppressed in their homeland of Burma because they are Muslims. Military-ruled Burma, which is about 90 per cent Buddhist, has been criticised for years by human rights groups for mistreatment of ethnic minorities. =

“Mr Hussain said his group fled Burma about a month ago to escape poverty and persecution, and that the Burmese navy intercepted their vessel as it sailed south toward Thailand. He said soldiers from four boats boarded their vessel with wooden and metal rods and beat them. "When they arrested us, they punched, hit and whipped us continuously. They tried to burn the boat, and even beat up the teenagers," said Mr Hussain, wearing a soiled T-shirt and a sarong. "They told us there are no Muslims in Burma, and they continued to beat us," he said. After being detained for 10 days, the migrants were let go. "They told us not to come back again, or they'll shoot us all." =

“A Thai navy captain, Manat Kongpan, said a patrol found the migrants about 460 kilometres south-west of Bangkok. They were handed over to the Thai police, who fed them and treated their wounds. This treatment - and its coverage on Thai television - appeared to be an attempt to mitigate some of the damage done to Thailand's image when a refugee advocates group in Bangkok accused the Thai navy of forcing 1000 mostly Rohingya migrants out to sea in boats with no engines and little food or water. The Arakan Project said 300 later drowned. =

Thai Government Position on Rohingya Boat People

In early February 2009, Reuters reported: “Thailand has no plans to open a camp for boat people arriving from neighbouring Myanmar and would continue its policy of deporting them, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said. Rohingya migrants reaching western Thai shores would receive humane treatment, including provision of food and water, but would be deported as illegal aliens, Suthep told reporters. "Thailand has no intention of opening any refugee camp. We cannot afford carrying the burden of taking care of another 200,000-300,000 people," Suthep, who oversees national security, said. "They come from Myanmar and that is where they will be deported to," he said. [Source: Reuters, February 4, 2009]

“Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva said authorities would investigate allegations of abused. In mid February 2009, he admitted that Thai authorities towed boat people from Myanmar out to sea. He told CNN in an interview that it was not yet clear who had approved the practice of setting minority Muslim Rohingya migrants adrift, but added that he was trying to find out. “All the authorities say that it`s not their policy but I have reason to believe that some instances of this have happened,” Abhisit told CNN when asked who was behind the policy of towing them out into the open ocean. “And if I can have the evidence as to exactly who did this I will certainly bring them to account,” he said.[Source: AP, February 13, 2009]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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