Thailand Accused of Leaving Asylum-Seekers to Die at Sea

BANGKOK ~ Human rights groups said this week they were appalled at accusations that the Thai government sent hungry and desperate refuge-seekers from a Myanmar ethnic minority back to the sea to die.

David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the treatment of the Rohingya – a Muslim group from Arakan state in Myanmar near the Bangladesh border – was “completely unacceptable.”

“These are really serious allegations that need to be investigated by the UN and the Thai government,” he said. “They are not allowed to act this way and I don’t think this is an isolated incident.”

Accounts from activists and media have emerged in recent days of more than 400 ethnic Rohingya landing in southern Thailand late last year after fleeing Myanmar, only to be towed to sea and cast adrift by the Thai navy.

The Indian coast guard says it has rescued hundreds of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar who said they had been arrested by Thai authorities and set adrift, but that many more may be missing.

The Thai navy on Saturday denied allegations that they sent the Rohingya adrift, and the foreign ministry said it was investigating the claims.

A researcher with London-based Amnesty International said that Thailand had obligations under international law to screen asylum-seekers to determine if they were at risk of abuse back home.

“These reports, if true, would implicate the Thai military in extremely serious violations of the human right to food, to seek asylum and potentially the human right to life itself,” said Amnesty’s Benjamin Zawacki.

“Those determined to not be refugees cannot simply be pushed back into sea with their hands tied, effectively left to die. These reports need to be immediately and thoroughly investigated.”

Local media carried photos of people on a beach with their hands trussed above their heads, while rights groups said the migrants from the country formally know as Burma were set adrift with scant food and water.

“It is outrageous that the lives of hundreds of poor, stateless people who are looking to escape oppression in Burma are now being jeopardised even in Thailand by being pushed back in the sea,” said Chris Lewa of advocacy group the Arakan Project.

The Bangkok Post carried accounts from survivors.

“We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine… we were then towed into the high seas by a motor boat and set adrift,” Zaw Min told the paper.

As well as the 412 who washed up in the Bay of Bengal, Indonesia’s foreign ministry on Sunday confirmed that nearly 200 foreigners rescued off the northern tip of Sumatra island earlier this month were mostly Rohingya.

A local official said that the migrants’ latest transit point was Thailand, but refused to say whether they had been expelled by the Thai authorities.

The Rohingya are stateless and face religious and ethnic persecution from Myanmar’s military regime, forcing thousands of them to take to rickety boats each year to try to escape poverty and oppression and head to Malaysia.

“They have to contend with the Burmese navy capturing them, there have been isolated reports of pirate attacks,” said Mathieson. “The boats are clearly overcrowded and there is not enough fresh food and water.”

Mathieson said Thailand had for the past few years taken a harsh stance on Rohingya landing on its shores, in part because they wanted to discourage further migration of the group through Thailand.

There were also fears that some Rohingya are mercenaries trying to join a separatist insurgency raging in the Muslim-majority Thai south, although Mathieson said there was little evidence to back up those claims.

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