Monday, February 27, 2012

Hungry boatpeople land on Thai beach

Phuket police searching for 12 would-be refugees after 102 men and boys come ashore at resort in rickety boat in a replay of notorious 2008 incident

Thai police in southern Phuket were yesterday searching for at least a dozen Rohingya boatpeople after the would-be refugees from Myanmar came ashore on a tourist beach.

They were among 102 boys and men who arrived aboard a 10-metre rickety wooden vessel on picturesque Nai Harn beach on Sunday. They then spread out across Phuket before dawn looking for food and water after what a detained 13-year-old boy told police was a 12-day voyage. Most of the men were quickly caught, but 12 have disappeared.

Images of the flooded vessel aground on Nai Harn beach, surrounded by crowds of Western tourists in swimsuits taking photographs, recall shocking photographs in 2008 that showed dozens of bound Rohingya being guarded by Thai troops on the island of Similan Eight, as tourists frolicked nearby.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar and the border regions with Bangladesh, are generally not considered dangerous but Phuket police hope to round them up quickly.

At least 65 men and boys were held briefly at Chalong police station on Sunday. By yesterday it was believed that group had been taken off Phuket to an undisclosed location.

The detainees appeared to be thin and desperate for the food and water that was supplied by police and locals, but otherwise in reasonable health.

Officers at Chalong station went through a similar experience 12 months ago when another boat landed nearby on Phuket.

The Rohingya diaspora board boats from Bangladesh or Myanmar in the winter months when seas are calmest, and head for safer southern shores. Many hope to find work in Muslim Malaysia, which last year announced an amnesty for more than half a million Bangladeshi illegal migrants.

The deal was valid for only two weeks in July, but still triggered a surge in the number of people willing to risk the sea crossing.

Tourists on the popular Phuket beach are believed to have sounded the alarm about the arrival of the latest boatload of Rohingya early on Sunday morning.

Nai Harn beach is surrounded by five-star and four-star resorts, offering a vivid contrast to the circumstances of the boatpeople, who cross the Andaman Sea with little more than dry rice and water.

The Royal Thai Navy conducts frequent patrols and usually "helps on" the vessels it intercepts by providing food, water, and mechanical attention if necessary.

The tactic is intended to keep the Rohingya out of official Thai custody; with Myanmar refusing to acknowledge their citizenship, repatriation can prove problematic.

This is in contrast to a notorious policy of "pushbacks" conducted by the Thai Army that was exposed by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) in January, 2009.

Under that now-disavowed scheme, Rohingya boatpeople were held behind barbed wire in secret detention on a Thai island, before being towed out to sea in unpowered boats and cast adrift. Hundreds died as a result.
The international scandal resulted in people-smuggling on the Bangladesh-Malaysia route grinding to a halt, as local authorities cracked down and the Rohingya, fearful of their treatment should they end up in Thailand, stayed ashore. But this season the sailings appear to have resumed in full swing.

In December, a boat carrying 120 people - mostly ethnic Rohingya - capsized in the Bay of Bengal, resulting in the drowning of 20 men.

After that accident, raids by border guards in the southeast coastal towns of Teknaf and Sabrum, which border Myanmar and host a large population of Rohingya refugees, have prevented several boats from illegally setting sail.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Source: South China Morning Post

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