Friday, January 23, 2009

Rohingyas : Nobody's People In Noman's Land

By Subir Bhaumik
My rather aggressive reporting on the severe ill-treatment of the Rohingya boatpeoples by the Thai military has finally blown the lid on one of the little known illegal migration.
Since late December, the Indian and the south-east Asian press has been reporting the rescue of these boatpeople by the Indian coastguards in
the Andaman islands. But they were just reporting figures - 107 rescued today and that kind of thing. When I returned from a long vacation, I decided to investigate the story that the figures were hinting at. What I found was serious stuff - the Thais have developed an unique way of discouraging illegal migration into their country. Instead of formally arresting them and then negotiating with Bangladesh and Burma (from where the illegal migrants had come), the Thais were herding these illegal migrants into a detention island, beating them black and blue, then removing the engines off the boats, forcing the migrants back into the boats with little food and water, towing the boats to the high seas and letting them drift.
Most of the boatpeople were Rohingya Muslims, hence Thais suspect they could join up with their homegrown Muslim militants down south. Or that was atleast their plea for such harsh treatment. My first BBC expose on 15th January thus rightly carried the caption - "Thais leave boatpeople to die".

This expose shook the Thais. My Bangkok based colleague Jonathan Head followed up with another investigation two days later, further exposing the Thai military. I have since done several followups to the story "Survivor's ordeal on Andaman Sea" , "Agents exploit boat people misery" and "Bangladesh accepts 57 boat people".
I am quite pleased with the way it has all played out. The Thai government has promised to investigate claims that the country's military authorities abused hundreds of Rohingya by pushing them back out to sea to die. At the same time, the UN has appealed to Thai authorities to be given access to survivors of the incidents believed to be in custody in southern Thailand. The new Thai prime minister has also assured human rights activists who met him earlier this week that his government would not tolerate any violation of the rights of Burmese boat people.
One cannot expect much from such investigations in Thailand. Like all societies with tradition of military intervention in politics, the Thai governments would rarely do anything that would upset the army. And we know the way the army feels about the BBC exposes by me and my colleague Jonathan Head. Thailand's Army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, told journalists that the military was investigating the incident, but quickly added that he was confident that 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 based in Thailand fear that hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya are dead after being pushed back into the sea by Thai authorities. Up to 200 people are missing while more than 300 others are already known to have drowned after they were set adrift by Thai soldiers, some with their hands tied behind their backs in boats without engines, survivors and human rights activists told us. The United Nation's refugee agency UNHCR has already voiced its concern about these reports and urged the government to investigate the incidents. They are now calling for Thai authorities to give them access to some of the Burmese refugees, who are believed to be in Thai custody in southern Thailand somewhere near Ranong. The UNHCR's latest request follows their initial response last week to media reports of the Thai authorities' inhumane treatment of Burmese migrant workers and refugee seekers. "We request the Thai government to take all measures necessary to ensure that the lives of Rohingya are not at risk and they are treated in accordance with humanitarian standards," regional spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said in Bangkok last week. Yet so far there has been no official response to any of UNHCR's requests. The UN body cannot even confirm how many Burmese Muslims are being detained or their whereabouts.
The Rohingyas live in northern Arakan state, in western Burma, bordering Bangladesh. For decades, many have fled social and religious persecution by Burmese military authorities there. Most human rights activists believe that the abuses committed by the junta in the Muslim dominated areas of western Burma are worse than anywhere else in the country. Since Burma's independence from Britain, there have been several successive surges of Muslim refugees fleeing the country, amounting to millions. The first massive wave was in the late 1970s, when tens of thousands fled to Bangladesh - though nearly all of them were later repatriated. Since the early nineties though, tens of thousands of Burmese Muslims have fled the increased social and religious repression and sought asylum and work abroad; most of them escaping to Bangladesh in the first instance.
Now many of these Burmese Muslim migrants are trying to get further afield – particularly to Indonesia and Malaysia. Their first stop though is Thailand, and thousands have been taking their chances and making the perilous two-week long voyage by sea from Bangladesh to southern Thailand on the first leg of their journey. The period from November to February is when most of the trips are made as the seas are generally not so rough. But in the past few months thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Burma have been rounded-up by Thai soldiers and transferred to an island off the coast of southern Thailand, near Ranong, before being allegedly put into boats without engines and set adrift.
In the past two years thousands of Burmese Muslim migrants have been tempted to head to Southeast Asia after the safer route to Saudi Arabia was blocked when it became impossible to get Bangladeshi papers permitting a direct flight.
I am quite happy that I could expose this mainly by speaking to the survivors now lodged in the Poachers Camp in the Andaman capital Port Blair.

But, as columnist Larry Jagan (my former BBC boss and Southeast Asia expert) says, this latest tragedy has helped highlight the continuing problem fleeing Burmese Muslims face-repression and persecution in their own country, an uncertain future in Bangladesh and being left to the small mercies of human traffickers. The Thai response may be draconian, but all countries in Southeast Asia are likely to take a harder line against illegal immigrants in the future in the face of the international economic down-turn and credit crunch. The Rohingyas are clearly nobody's people in a noman's land - and a solution to their many problems can only be found through a regional dialogue, not through the kind of harsh bilateral action that the Thai military has taken.

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