Military

THAILAND: Government, Army to investigate claims of Rohingya abuse

BANGKOK, 20 January 2009 (IRIN) - The head of Thailand's Army, General Anupong Paochinda, told journalists on 20 January the military was investigating allegations that military authorities abused Burmese Muslim refugees.

This followed assurances by the new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on 19 January that the government would investigate allegations that the Thai Navy cast hundreds of Rohingya asylum-seekers from Myanmar adrift in the Andaman Sea in southwest Thailand last month.

The defence minister would investigate these accusations and report back to the prime minister as soon as possible, according to Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

The premier also assured human rights activists that his government would not tolerate any violation of the rights of the Burmese boat people.

The army chief added he was confident no Thai officials used violence when dealing with migrant workers and refugees.

"They all adhere to international standards and principles of human rights in dealing with illegal immigrants," he said.

However, human rights activists in Thailand fear hundreds of Burmese Muslim refugees died in the incident.

Up to 200 people are missing, while more than 300 others are known to have drowned after they were allegedly set adrift by Thai soldiers, some with their hands tied behind their backs in boats without engines, according to survivors and human rights groups.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had voiced concerns about the reports and urged the government to investigate the incidents.

"We request the Thai government take all measures necessary to ensure that the lives of Rohingya are not at risk and they are treated in accordance with humanitarian standards," said Kitty McKinsey, a regional spokeswoman for UNHCR in Bangkok.

UNHCR is seeking access to two groups of Burmese - 126 in all - in Thai custody near Ranong in southern Thailand and believed to be among those who were pushed out to sea last month. UNHCR officials want to be able to assess their situation and determine whether they need international protection.

These Burmese migrants are members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, who are mostly stateless people living in the west of Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, who have fled social and religious persecution.

Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands have sought asylum and work abroad, mostly in Bangladesh.

Survival tales

In the past few months, thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have been rounded up by Thai soldiers and transferred to an island off the southern coast, near Ranong, before allegedly being put into boats without engines and set adrift.

In the first incident on 18 December, 412 Burmese refugees were placed in a large barge, hands tied behind their backs and towed out to sea with little food or water, according to survivors.

"We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine," Zaw Min, one of the few survivors, told IRIN through an interpreter. "We were then towed on to the high seas by a motorboat and set adrift," he said.

"The food and water ran out within a few days," said another survivor. "We were starving for nearly two weeks and feared we would never see dry land again," he added.

The boat drifted for days in the Andaman Sea, before Indian coastal guards rescued them. They are now being held in jail on an Andaman island. They were all severely dehydrated, according to a local medical official.

Only 107 Burmese migrants survived the ordeal, according to refugee workers.

There were four dead bodies on board when the boat was beached. More than 300 Burmese perished, according to researchers with the Arakan Project, a regional NGO. Most died when they jumped overboard and tried to swim to safety when they saw land and lights on the island. The area is renowned for its rough seas and shark-infested waters.

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Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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