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Five Years of Hell for Boatpeople

The Royal Thai Navy oversees Rohingya on a beach in 2008. Now, in 2013, dealing with human traffickers appears to provide an easier solution Photo by Royal Thai Navy
By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian
Phuket Wan 
December 7, 2013
In December 2008, Phuketwan asked the Royal Thai Navy for permission for
its journalists to travel on a warship. looking for Rohingya boats. The navy
knocked back the request but instead sent some photographs of boatpeople being
apprehended and laid out on the Similans and other holiday destinations like so
many fish, drying in the sun. That year, at least 5000 boatpeople arrived in
Thailand and the navy was doing its duty by apprehending them. We can’t say
what happened to those thousands of men, or the thousands who had made the
journey before them. 
In January 2009 we became curious again and went looking ourselves for
what we could discover about the boatpeople. What we found was a nightmare. The
boatpeople were being arrested along the Andaman coast north and south of
Phuket and being transferred into the arms of the Internal Security Operations
Command. Using paramilitary volunteers, Isoc was hiding the boatpeople on an
island off the coast of Ranong, the province on Thailand’s coastal border with
Burma, then arranging to have them pushed back out to sea, with little food or
water. It was inhumane and unacceptable. 
With the article published in Phuketwan on January 9, 2009, the world
began to learn what the word ‘Rohingya’ meant and how poorly these people were
being treated by Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. Hundreds of men are thought to
have perished at sea because of the ”pushbacks.” Survivors were washed up in
Indonesia and India. Investigators feared that the men were joining the
insurrection in Thailand’s Deep South but it was persecution in Burma that was
forcing them to risk their lives. 
On January 15, 2009, the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong
Kong, which had worked with Phuketwan to cover the story, published a
front-page account with photographs by an Australian tourist who had witnessed
and photographed Rohingya being laid out like sardines at one end of a Similans
beach while tourists enjoyed their holiday at the other end of the beach. 
Before the end of January, CNN produced the ”smoking gun” images that
showed the Rohingya being pulled out to sea by the Thai military, with only a
moderate chance of survival. Then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva promised an
investigation. No investigation ever took place. The Thai military is not known
to conduct investigations, nor to ever reveal to the public anything that might
reflect poorly on the Thai military. 
The Rohingya issue faded from view. Rohingya in Burma hoped that changes
to the constitution would given them the citizenship they’d hoped for. Despite
opposition spokesperson Aung San Suu Kyi winning her freedom, nothing changed
for the persecuted Rohingya.
On January 1, 2013, Phuketwan reporters travelled by speedboat to
intercept a Rohingya boat off the southern Phuket destination of Rawai. This
boat was different to other boats: there were women and children on board. We
were shocked to see whole families in the basic primitive conditions that
usually only the Rohingya menfolk experienced. This was because two outbreaks
of violence in Burma’s Arakan state in 2012 had led to the torching of family
homes, and the refugee camps were being deprived of essentials by the
Rohingya’s hateful neighbors. The children said they were fleeing ”certain
death.” Those families were trucked back to Ranong and put back on another
boat.
Perhaps because it had been revealed that women and children were now
fleeing Burma, Thai authorities raided a number of traffickers’ camps on the
Thai-Malaysia border and apprehended several vessels off the Andaman coast,
holding about 2200 men, women and children in ”protective custody” and
promising to resolve their status and their futures within six months. In late
January,Phuketwan intercepted another vessel off Phuket and saw the Royal Thai
Navy ”help on” a boatload of Rohingya towards Malaysia with water and
food. 
By March it was becoming obvious that there was no real plan to care for
the Rohingya who had been apprehended and held in Thailand. A small group of
men were arrested on Phuket and the headline read ‘Phuket Boatpeople Vanish as
Rohingya Lose Out to Lies and Propaganda.’ Not much changed in the coming
months. Because of Burma’s racist treatment of the Rohingya, Thailand’s
reputation was bound to suffer.
A mysterious shooting north of Phuket led to accusations that the Navy
was involved in trafficking large numbers of boatpeople and, although a Vice
Admiral denied Navy involvement, he did confirm that trafficking had taken
place. By April there were reports of several deaths of Rohingya in custody
because Immigration cells were not made to hold people in close confinement.
Another boat landed on Phuket and the occupants were forced to go straight into
captivity, even though they had already been held prisoners in India. 
By June Thailand’s plan to find answers to the Rohingya issue was
falling apart with women and children becoming especially adept at contacting
traffickers in the communities near their family shelters throughout Thailand
and escaping to Malaysia. In one case in the province of Phang Nga, a local
policeman was arested and charged with assisting a trafficker accused of rape.
It was to open the door to much wider accusations of official help in assisting
Rohingya to flee into the arms of people smugglers, and worse. 
A woman nine months pregnant joined escapers in July in a plain message
that Thailand’s policy on the Rohingya was not working. With the apprehended
Rohingya fleeing at an increasingly fast rate, and fresh boats beginning to
arrive from Burma, Thai authorities must have been wondering what they could
possibly do. The Rohingya did not want to stay in Thailand, just to move
through the country to Malaysia. In August, just to make their feelings plain,
male Rohingya prisoners at Phang Nga Immigration staged what some officials
called a ”riot.”
On October 21, Phuketwan reporters carried a report headlined ‘Captive
Rohingya Being Sold By Thai Officials.’ The article followed a stakeout by
journalists of Ranong Immigration that showed busloads of Rohingya were being
transferred there in the middle of the night, with increasing frequency.
Phuketwan reporters followed one truckload the next day to a pier. Although we
waited but did not see the Rohingya actually take to the water, we’d been told
that this was how Rohingya were being recycled into the trafficking circle. And
how Thailand was secretly easing its ”problem” with its racist neighbor,
Burma, and the Rohingya people Burma doesn’t want. 
On December 3, Phuketwan published its report of an investigation that
showed that hundreds of Rohingya are being secretly processed through hidden
jungle camps in southern Thailand, with the connivance of Immigration
officials, the help of human traffickers, and the possible payments of large
sums of money. One escaper told us he’d counted 16 deaths in just one of four
camps in 14 days and seen Rohingya women raped and men beaten to death. Two
days later, the Reuters news agency published an extended report. The Phuketwan
team can only wonder whether the deaths and the exposures will keep happening
ever five years, or more frequently now.