Thursday, January 29, 2009

Drowning Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma

By Andrew Lam
New America Media

For a country steeped in Buddhism, Thailand is accruing terrible karmic debts. News reports, including those by the Thai press itself, indicate systematic abuse of refugees fleeing from its neighbor, Myanmar.

Tourists have seen and photographed Thai troops abusing members of a Muslim minority group who were fleeing Myanmar by boat to Thailand’s southern shores. On the Similan Islands, tourists reported seeing boat people lying down on the beach, bound, struck and whipped by Thai military if they raised their heads. CNN recently confirmed with a Thai military source that Thailand is practicing a dump-at-sea policy: towing boats back to the sea, often without giving refugees food or water.

UN refugee agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey expressed the gravity of the situation: "The reports that we are hearing are very alarming. That the [boat people] were detained in Thailand and then towed out to sea on unseaworthy boats and left to die basically."

If it strikes the world as contradictory that Thailand, which bills itself as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and boasts of refined hospitality, could also be a country that rejects and beats up on the poor and the dispossessed, it does not strike any of its neighbors as anything but business as usual. Thailand’s long antipathy toward its neighbors is notorious.

Ask a Vietnamese boat person during the '80s who survived Thai piracy in the Andaman Sea and you will hear tales of unspeakable horrors – rape, robbery, murder, and human trafficking. UN records are full of documents, describing how Thai pirates used hammers, machetes, and guns to massacre entire boats of refugees, including children and women. Others were simply dumped at sea to drown. Despite international protest, the Thai government made few attempts to prosecute those accused.

During the Cold War, Thailand also supported the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the death of more than 2 million Cambodians. What did the Land of a Thousand Smiles gain from supporting such a murderous group? Access to the Pailin gem mines and precious timber under Khmer Rouge control, and the promise to keep at bay the invading Vietnamese, who until 1989, occupied Cambodia.

If Thailand is now practicing a cruel and unacceptable policy toward refugees fleeing the cruel and unacceptable military regime in Myanmar, it is because Thailand hasn’t been exactly nice to its own Muslim minorities. Resentment against the Thai government has been brewing, along with allegations of abduction, torture and the disappearances of various Thai Muslim activists in the southern provinces. A primary example is human rights lawyer Sonchai Neelaphaijit, who disappeared while under police surveillance in March 2004. That same year, Thai police and security forces shot dead 107 machete-wielding youths, leaving them in a pool of blood. Thousands have been killed since then. The image of Thailand as a peaceful and gracious country has tarnished since then.

There is also an incentive for Thailand not to take refugees: it risks offending the ruling junta in Myanmar, with whom it enjoys a cozy relationship. After all, Thailand is buying jade, precious minerals and timber – all much-needed natural resources -- from Myanmar for a song, with the generals’ blessings. Last year, when the world condemned Myanmar for its inaction after the cyclone Nargis devastated half of its country, Thailand spoke in favor of the junta.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to investigate the current refugee crisis. But an official investigation, given the government’s record so far, and Vejjajiva's military backing, may very well be another word for stonewalling.

Thailand has been a blessed country. While its neighbors suffered under colonial rulers, Thailand escaped that fate and was the only country in Southeast Asia to develop independently and in peace. While Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Vietnam suffered from insurgencies and warfare in the post-colonial period, Thailand – land of golden temples and pristine beaches - grew in confidence and sophistication. Many Thais attribute the country's peace and prosperity to an adherence to Buddhism and devotion to the Buddha.

But such good karma can last only so long. Buddha teaches love and compassion as key components to Buddhist practice. The world and the people of Thailand should seriously question whether killing unarmed refugees is the right path toward peace.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Reflections

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