Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scandal of new boat people damaging Thailand

This picture taken December 23 by a tourist to Thailand's Similan Islands shows handcuffed refugees under guard.

(In the Field) BANGKOK, Thailand – The emerging scandal involving the Thai army’s alleged mistreatment of hundreds of ethnic Rohingya from Burma is slowly getting more and more worrying each day.

We don’t know yet exactly what happened, but a dark picture of hundreds of deaths at sea is emerging, and some are laying the blame with the Internal Security Operations Command of the Thai army.

The Rohingya have long been persecuted in Burma (or Myanmar as the junta renamed it) - many are stateless, living in horrendous poverty on Burma’s border with Bangladesh, unwanted and downtrodden.

Some 200,000 are on the Bangladeshi side of the border, scraping a living in sprawling refugee camps.

That context perhaps explains why so many thousand each year risk their lives in unseaworthy boats to try and find a better life in south-east Asia.

The men that boarded those boats must have known the journey would be perilous. They kissed good-bye to their wives and children and embarked on a voyage that was fraught with risk, destination unknown, but with the ultimate hope it would be transformative.

Just the slimmest chance of earning a few dollars a day in Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand made it seem worth gambling with their lives. Watch how the refugees’ plight came to light

Reported on: 22Jan09

Then imagine their overwhelming relief and delight at finally sighting land after days or perhaps even weeks adrift.

They’d made it - but what these refugees didn’t know was this was Thailand, not Malaysia, and the reception would be less than welcoming.

What happened next is unclear. The army insists it did nothing wrong, that it was villagers who took the Rohingya to a remote island in December, where they cared for them until they were ready to leave.

But according to many of the Rohingya survivors’ accounts, relayed to aid groups, they were detained by soldiers, beaten and intimidated and then towed back out to sea in their engineless boats, without sufficient food or water.

The lucky ones made it to either the Andaman Islands or Indonesia after weeks drifting at sea but many drowned as they jumped off the boats to try and make it to distant lights on the horizon or swimming in vain towards passing boats.

In the last couple of days the story has focused on another group of 46 Rohingya who came ashore in Thailand just last Friday.

Their whereabouts remains unknown. It’s the same story for another group of 80 Rohingya who also arrived recently, possibly part of the original group which arrived in December.

The U.N. has asked for access to these 126 supposedly detained refugees, but the Thai government has dragged its feet for days.

Perhaps it simply doesn’t know what became of them or perhaps it has something to hide?

There are reports that they may have already left Thailand, but that leaves more questions. When? How? The fear of course is that they have been dumped at sea again.

If this is true, it is utterly reprehensible and those responsible should be brought to justice.

The Thai prime minister has launched an inquiry, but many are wondering whether this will really result in any prosecutions. Read more from Dan Rivers on the scandal

All told, more than 500 Rohingya are missing and if the survivors are to be believed, the Thai army needs to be held to account.

This represents a major test of the credibility of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

I hope he has the courage to pursue a thorough, impartial and exhaustive inquiry into what has happened.

He needs to move fast - if these Rohingya are still in Thai custody, he must tell us where.

If they are not, who authorized their release, when were they set free and crucially how?

The prime minister has constantly reminded international audiences of the need to rebuild Thai society through the rule of law. This is his chance to put the rhetoric into action.

Posted by: CNN Bangkok correspondent, Dan Rivers

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