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    Harbour for Rohingya or stop on way to hell?

    DARING TO DREAM: A
    Rohingya boy at the Phangnga Shelter for Children and Families looks up with
    his eyes full of hope for a better life.
    Bangkok Post:
    March 24, 2013
    For thousands of
    Rohingya fleeing Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, the sleepy fishing village
    of Ban Hin Lat is the first port of call on their difficult quest to find
    better lives.
    If they make it to
    the village in the Khura Buri district of Phangnga they will find a relatively
    well-off fishing community and locals more than sympathetic to their plight.
    Most of the locals are Muslims, and some Myanmar nationals work legally on
    fishing boats.
    In the grounds of the
    local mosque, out of sight from the main road, is a 10m Rohingya vessel
    inscribed in Thai with the words “Rohingya people _ the forgotten citizens of
    the world”.
    Ga, a 43-year-old
    Thai Muslim who heads the unofficial Rohingya Help Centre in Hin Lat, says she
    had a negative attitude toward the Rohingya before she got to know them.
    “Once I got to talk
    to them, I realised we are so much alike,” said Ga, who requested her full name
    not be used.
    “First of all, the
    Rohingya are strict Muslims. They practise their religion _ such as praying
    five times a day _ just like us.
    “Even though we speak
    a different language, we believe in the same things and we do no harm to other
    people. They are just seeking a peaceful and better place to live where they
    can feel safe and be treated as equals … as human beings.”
    Ga, who works on Koh
    Surin as a cook, played a key role in the drama last month involving 133
    Rohingya that led to allegations that the Royal Thai Navy shot at a group of
    them, resulting in the deaths of two men.
    It was Ga who first
    noticed the Rohingya vessel on Feb 20 and sent a speedboat to tow it to Koh
    Surin. The weary passengers, who had set out from Rakhine state on Feb 5 were
    fed on the island by Ga and her friends, who then contacted the navy. The
    feeding of the Rohingya was organised and paid for by the help centre.
    Ga believed the
    Rohingya would be taken out to sea, but alternative plans were made to send
    them to a temporary shelter at Hin Lat on the mainland. However, the vessel
    never arrived and two bodies were found in the water off Koh Phra Thong near
    Hin Lat a week later, while five other Rohingya men were rescued from the sea.
    Ga, who took footage
    of the rescued Rohingya on her mobile phone, was on hand when the bodies were
    recovered, saying she later identified them in the hospital from their
    clothing. She also provided a Bangladeshi-speaking roti seller to act as an
    interpreter for the five rescued men.
    Bang Bao, a senior
    religious leader in the village, says because of its location, Hin Lat is a
    natural stopping-off point for Rohingya boatpeople as they inevitably run out
    of fuel or provisions here, although their intended destination may be Malaysia
    or Indonesia.
    “Since about November
    last year until February this year, there have been so many Rohingya arriving
    illegally by boat,” he said.
    “From the
    conversations I’ve had with the Rohingya who made it here, they said their
    boats run out of fuel when they reach Thai waters.
    “They just wait for
    the tide to take them closer to land. It almost sounds like it is well-planned.
    Most of the boats usually make landfall near Koh Phra Thong or Koh Surin.”
    Surapong Kongchantuk,
    of the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand, is chairman of the Human Rights
    Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities, Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced
    Persons. He said he had not heard from his contacts about smuggling through the
    village.
    However, he said the
    situation at Hin Lat sounded typical of the smuggling rings involving Rohingya
    and locals who work in conjunction with the Thai military.
    Often this involves a
    local “spotter” who notifies the human traffickers of a boat’s arrival.
    “On every boat
    carrying Rohingya people, there are usually one or two traffickers,” he said.
    “They are the ones who have the mobile phones with different SIMs for each
    country. They call the traffickers on the other side to report their location
    and when they expect to arrive.”
    Mr Surapong said a
    call is then made to a contact on the mainland to prepare for the arrival of
    the boatpeople.
    “Once they arrive,
    government officials make it appear they are under arrest, but in fact they are
    sent to a safe house to wait for people to buy them,” he said.
    “But that was before
    the government came up with the idea of pushing the boats back out to sea and
    not allowing the Rohingya ashore on the mainland,” he said referring to the new
    government policy of returning the boats to sea, rather than having the
    Rohingya land and be processed by immigration officials. Prior to this policy
    change, Rohingya who landed or who were intercepted and sent to the mainland
    were dealt with by the Internal Security Operations Command or the immigration
    police.
    Mr Surapong said
    while the modus operandi at Hin Lat closely matched other Rohingya trafficking
    cases, he was not drawing any conclusions that local villagers were involved in
    human smuggling.
    “They may simply be
    helping other Muslims,” he said.
    Mr Bao said they
    allowed the Rohingya Help Centre to use the mosque as a headquarters and
    gathering point because of a shortage of facilities.
    He said the help
    centre was set up at the request of the Khura Buri district office. When Rohingya
    are sent to the mainland the villagers offer them food and temporary
    accommodation before they are taken to the shelter.
    “We were all quite
    happy to do it because the Rohingya are Muslims just like us,” Mr Bao said of
    the help centre.
    “We believe that we
    are all the same _ brothers and sisters. Therefore, we have to offer each other
    help.”
    Regarding the Feb 20
    incident, Mr Bao said a worker related to Ga on Surin island had phoned ahead
    to tell the villagers to prepare for the arrival of the vessel that night.
    He said they expected
    the Rohingya to spend a few days recovering before being handed over to
    immigration police.
    Mr Bao said that as
    the boatpeople had landed on Koh Surin, he believed they had effectively
    reached Thai territory and had to be processed by immigration officials, rather
    than being pushed back out to sea.
    THE LITTLE FISH ARE
    SWEETER
    Rohingya women and
    children who make it to the mainland in the province are sent to the Phangnga
    Shelter for Children and Families, 100km south of Hin Lat.
    Dararat Suthes, head
    of the centre, said police transferred the first batch of Rohingya _ eight
    women, 10 boys and seven girls _ to them on Jan 16.
    ”After that, there
    were a lot more sent to our shelter almost daily for a week, and more once a
    week after that,” she said.
    At present, there are
    68 Rohingya in the shelter; 35 boys, nine girls and 24 women.
    ”We only have nine
    people, including myself, to take care of the 16 Thai kids we have,” she said.
    ”With the Rohingya,
    now we have to take care of an extra 68 people. We only have enough money to
    feed 30 people _ 60 baht per person per day. Without donations of food, clothes
    and money we wouldn’t be able to take care of these people.”
    Mrs Dararat also said
    six boys had run away from the shelter after a visit by a group of men in early
    February who were posing as a Muslim welfare group checking whether they were
    being fed the right food and allowed to practise their religious beliefs.
    ”A group of men who
    called themselves the Muslim Association came to visit the Rohingya to check on
    their welfare and how they were getting on,” she said.
    ”After that day, two
    boys ran away on Feb 11, and another two days later,” he said ”The Muslim
    Association came back at the beginning of March and another three boys
    disappeared on March 4.
    ”I believe the people
    pretending to be from the Muslim Association must be behind all this. There was
    one time in February when a group of men came to the shelter around 7pm and
    asked us directly how much one Rohingya would cost? One of my staff was very
    scared. She told them that people here are not for sale.”
    Mrs Dararat said the
    Rohingya seemed to trust only other Muslims, especially those from Malaysia.
    ”If you pretend to be
    a Muslim from Malaysia you will get their full attention,” she said.
    A member of the
    Spectrum team posed as a Malaysian Muslim to test the theory. Several of the
    boys ran to their rooms and returned with telephone numbers written on pieces
    of paper. Mrs Dararat believed these were contact details of human smugglers.
    Some of the children said in broken English ”Me go Malaysia, with you OK?”
    Mrs Dararat said she
    did not know how much longer the Rohingya would be at the shelter.
    ”The Phangnga
    provincial office promised that they will be at the shelter for only six months
    and then they will be transferred elsewhere,” she said.
    ”I only hope they can
    go where they want without being sold as if they are pieces of meat.”
    Mr Surapong said it
    was not unusual that staff at the shelter would be asked to sell Rohingya.
    ”There are some
    shelters in the South where Rohingya can easily be bought,” he said.
    ”This is big
    business. One Rohingya can cost up to 50,000 baht. Sometimes a whole boatload
    can cost more than 1.5 million baht. That is why people are involved in
    trafficking.”
    BEATING THE TRAFFICK
    Through her work at
    the Rohingya Help Centre, Ga echoes the sentiments of Mrs Dararat on the recent
    increase in the number of Rohingya coming through Hin Lat.
    ”They never came in
    these numbers before,” she said. ”I’ve seen them in the past and I believed
    they were looking for asylum since there were men and women travelling together
    and their ages ranged from young to old.
    ”Now I feel there are
    more seeking jobs through human-trafficking agents. There are a lot more
    Rohingya travelling through Thailand to Malaysia and most of them are adult men.”
    Despite her growing
    scepticism about the motives for their journeys, Ga says the local Muslim
    community has no qualms about feeding the Rohingya halal food and offering them
    a place at the mosque.
    ”They can spend the
    night before government officials come to take them to Rohingya shelters in
    Phangnga, Surat Thani, Songkhla and other provinces in the South,” she said.
    ”We spend community
    funds to pay for food and supplies for the Rohingya who arrive at our village.
    Sometimes we have to cover some expenses ourselves, but we don’t mind helping
    out.”
    Ga said when the two
    bodies were found by fishermen on Feb 28 she covered the expenses to retrieve
    them. ”I paid for the fuel for another boat to bring the bodies back to our
    village and I took the bodies to the hospital with my own truck.”
    Ga also revealed the
    villagers had played a key role in keeping the five rescued survivors away from
    the navy.
    ”Fishermen from our
    village discovered them and took them back to the village where we kept them
    hidden,” she said. ”They were quite scared of the navy and asked to stay.
    ”We provided their
    accommodation, but I can’t reveal where. Most have already left and continued
    on their journey.”
    Ga also said that
    sometimes Rohingya in temporary accommodation in Hin Lat fled before they were
    taken to government shelters.
    ”I know that the
    Rohingya who came here already had the contact details of human traffickers who
    are able to get them to where they want to go,” she said. ”I’ve long suspected
    that government officials are somehow involved with the trafficking.”
    Mr Surapong said the
    ”mass shooting” near Koh Phra Thong had changed the relationship between the
    Rohingya and the Thai ”men in uniform” involved in the human smuggling racket.
    In the past, corruption and bribes had been an accepted part of the deal to
    reach their destination, but the Rohingya would not tolerate Thai officials
    allegedly firing on them.
    ”They were happy to
    see Thai government officials involved in human trafficking activities, until
    the deaths of the two Rohingya,” he said.
    The two bodies
    recovered had autopsies performed on them at the Khura Buri Chaipat Hospital on
    Feb 28. Neither the hospital nor the local police were willing to reveal the
    results of the autopsies and the bodies have been buried.
    Pol Col Weerasin
    Kwancheng, superintendent of Khura Buri Police Station told Spectrum on
    Thursday the causes of death of the two men were unknown.
    ”The Khura Buri
    Chaipat Hospital performed autopsies on the two unidentified men found floating
    in the water off Ko Phra Thong on Feb 28, but they couldn’t find out the causes
    of death. The bodies were badly decayed and the hospital didn’t have the
    equipment for more thorough autopsies. Therefore, the hospital couldn’t
    determine the actual causes of death.”
    Mr Surapong said that
    at a human trafficking seminar he held in Bangkok on March 14, a group of angry
    Rohingya claimed 15 Rohingya had been killed in Khura Buri.
    Mr Surapong said the
    government needed a clearer policy to deal with Rohingya otherwise the same
    tragedies would be repeated every year.
    ”They should now
    close the border and not allow any more Rohingya to enter the country,” he
    said.
    ”We should deal with
    the 1,700 Rohingya that are here by sending them back to their place of origin.
    ”The most important
    step is to find out who is behind this and punish them. Though it’s difficult,
    it can be done.”
    A COMMUNITY FULL OF
    COLOUR
    The village of Ban
    Hin Lat dates back to 1945, when it was settled by Muslims from Krabi and
    Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces. Today, the thriving community is home to 2,227
    people, of which 80% percent are Muslim, including a number of migrant
    fishermen from Myanmar.
    Fishing is a key
    driver of the local economy, along with its rubber and palm tree plantations.
    Architecturally, Hin
    Lat is a blend of ancient and modern. Traditional fishermen’s cottages sit
    comfortably alongside the colourful modern homes of the village’s wealthier
    residents.
    The bright paintwork
    is typical of Muslim homes in southern Thailand, where vibrant hues are used as
    a sign of prosperity.
    Most properties in
    the village are single storey, except for the small number belonging to civic
    leaders and other prominent figures.
    Unlike many villages
    in Thailand, Hin Lat has a paved road running through its central area. Though
    despite the nod to modern infrastructure, much of the activity in the community
    revolves around the market areas and back streets, where rows of vendors tout
    their wares and local folk chat among themselves in their distinctive southern
    dialect.
    At one end of the
    main street is the harbour. Tourists can catch a boat there to Koh Pra Thong,
    one of Phangnga’s main attractions.
    Close to the entrance
    to the village is the community mosque at Hin Lat Moo 3. As well as providing a
    religious focal point for the community, the mosque is home to the Rohingya
    Help Centre. Suitably, within its grounds is a small fishing boat that was used
    by a group of Rohingya people to flee Myanmar and later put on display by the
    local people.
    Villagers told
    Spectrum that they preserved the boat as a reminder of the 120 Rohingya people
    who sailed in it from Myanmar to Thailand, and whose lives they helped to save.
    Written in Thai along
    the side of the vessel are the words, ”Rohingya people _ the forgotten citizens
    of the world”.
    http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/342108/harbour-for-rohingya-or-stop-on-way-to-hell