PHUKET: This photo shows the latest Rohingya boatpeople apprehended north of Phuket. The whereabouts of the 92 boys and men today has become a mystery and cause for international concern.
Sources have told Phuketwan that in a change from normal procedure, the boatpeople group has been handed over to the Army and trucked north to a large base in the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) border port of Ranong.
Two years ago, military and paramilitary replaced Immigration as the organisation that handles Rohingya boatpeople and carried out the notorious ''pushbacks,'' that led to the deaths of hundreds.
Phuketwan spoke to officials yesterday from Human Rights Watch, a United Nations organisation and other rights bodies who all expressed concern about the lack of clarity in the policy of Thailand's new government towards the boatpeople.
Previously, groups of Muslim minority Rohingya who landed on the holiday island of Phuket and south of Phuket earlier this year were handed over to Immigration officials for processing.
An article in the Phuket Gazette today confirms through local police sources Phuketwan's exclusive report on Thursday that the boatload had landed on the Andaman coast, three hours' drive north of Phuket, a few hours earlier.
International news media also began to show interest today with an article appearing in the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post, which together with Phuketwan exposed the reprehensible ''pushbacks'' in January 2009.
It is believed the group that were apprehended at Dab Tung, near the port of Kuraburi in Phang Nga province, scuttled their own rickety boat when they ran out of food and water, and waded ashore.
Informed sources say thousands more boatpeople are likely to head past Phuket and the Andaman holiday coast for sanctuary in Malaysia this November to April ''sailing season'' as the new Burma government continues its policy of persecution.
Royal Thai Navy vessels patrol the Andaman Sea and attempt to ''help on'' the boatpeople with food and water and fuel if necessary, but with so many boats now taking to the water in northern Burma or Bangladesh, some are inevitably bound to escape detection and land in Thailand.
The boatpeople set out to navigate by sight along the Andaman Sea coast, and usually are forced to come ashore whenever their food and water run out.
Although the issue received worldwide attention after the 2009 ''pushbacks'' were exposed, Thailand and the countries of Asean have lately fallen silent and appeased the supposedly newly ''democratic'' Burmese regime, where the treatment of Rohingya remains brutal.
The policy of the new Thai government towards Rohingya is not clear.
Earlier this year, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, the following exchange took place with the then Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was in charge at the time the ''pushback'' policy was revealed.
Reporter: A couple of questions on Thailand's policy towards the Rohingyas. Sometime in February, 129 Rohingyas refugees from Burma appeared on the shores of Aceh. And according to highly placed source whom I've talked to, they've admitted that they were stopped on the seas by the Thai Navy - boat bearing the Thai Navy flag - and subsequently, another boat had directed them out to sea. They were provided rice and water. Their engine was damaged and they were set afloat and they showed up in Aceh. We experienced a similar scenario in 2009, if you recall, and you yourself told a CNN in an interview it is somewhat disturbing and you would like to investigate.
So my question is, what was the outcome of the 2009 investigation? And have you heard of a scenario like the one that I just described to you that happened in February?
PM Abhisit: For this year, the accounts given to me, the evidence is very mixed about what actually took place but certainly after 2009 when we investigated, it was clear that the instructions is that if these people are turned away, they must be supplied with food and water and I think that's the operating procedures that we pursue. I have to make a couple of points:
First, we have to take the right view of these people. They are often portrayed as refugees. But they are in fact very much like economic migrants. You will notice that they are always all of them are young men and actually, they are all looking for jobs, mostly down maybe in Malaysia down South. And every country has a right to turn people away. We just have these operating standard procedures to make sure that they have food and water. I can't say about whether their engines were damaged or not. Clearly, there's no intention for them to just be pushed out without chances of survival. But we have every right just as European countries and other countries have pushed back these people, these kinds of people trying to enter the country.
Reporter: Y'know, the Indonesian government and the Malaysian government have let the UNHCR talk to the Rohingyas to declare if they are entitled to the right of refugee status. As far as the Thai government is concerned, they have let UNHCR to meet the Rohingyas coming in to figure out if they have physical problems. But the Thai government has a policy not to permit the UNHCR to talk to the Rohingyas to see if they qualify for refugee status. Why do you have different policies from the Indonesians and the Malaysians on the refugee issue? Is there a position that you've taken against Rohingyas escaping from the horrors of Burma?
PM Abhisit: No, as far as I'm aware, people do visit the Rohingyas and they have access to these people whom I think two years ago, a number of them were retained; even this year in Ranong and other provinces.
Reporter: The UNHCR lets them talk, that's not the problem. But the Thai government has a policy not to let the UNHCR discuss refugee issues with them whereas the Indonesians and the Malaysians seem to be a bit more open about it.
PM Abhisit: As I said, we will have our groups to visit these people and talk to them. I am not aware of us forbidding them to talk about issues.
Rohingya Captured North of Phuket Are Handed Straight Over to the Thai Army