New details have emerged about the alleged shooting at Rohingya refugees by Thai navy officers in which as many as 20 people were killed, according to witness reports (we reported). The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch has released a statement calling on the Thai government for an investigation. HRW also published their own findings about the incident:

Survivors told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of February 21, Thai fishermen helped their drifting boat ashore on Surin Island off the coast of Phang Nga province. On that same day, at about 6:30 p.m., a Thai navy patrol boat numbered TOR214 arrived at the island and towed their boat back to the sea. Navy patrol boat TOR214 and the Rohingya boat arrived near a pier in Kuraburi district of Phang Nga province at around 5 a.m. the next morning. According to the survivors and Thai villagers on the shore, navy personnel from the patrol boat began to divide the Rohingya into small groups in the boat and ordered them to get ready to board smaller boats. At that point, the Rohingya became uncertain whether they would be taken to immigration detention on the mainland or be pushed back to the sea. When the first group of 20 Rohingya was put on a smaller boat by the Thai navy, some panicked and jumped overboard.

“Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water.”

Thailand: Fleeing Rohingya Shot in Sea by Navy“, Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2013

This account was based on 4 survivors of this incident, after they have swum to a nearby village and have been sheltered by the local villagers and also hidden from the authorities. These 4 men have now reportedly fled to Malaysia as they fear retributions from Thai authorities. Reportedly, two bodies were found and pulled out of the water with one of them baring a bullet wound in the head. These two have been already been buried at a nearby cemetery. The rest of the 20 men are still missing, but presumed dead.

Rohingya migrants sit on a police van in southern Thailand. There have been allegations that some of the migrants are being sold to human traffickers. Pic: AP.

The whereabouts of the remaining refugees are unknown, as they could have been towed out and left to the sea again on their journey to Malaysia or Indonesia. Or worse, they could be sold off to human traffickers, as recent cases have shown and more accusations by Rohingya refugees have surfaced. This has now also been underlined by witness reports of local villagers.

The Thai authorities are fiercely denying the allegations, pointing the blame back at the Rohingya refugees themselves.

“The navy commander [Adm Surasak Rounroengrom] has insisted that the navy did not kill or shoot at the Rohingya,” a navy source told the Bangkok Post. “We feel for them. No humans or sailors can commit such act because the Rohingya people are not our enemy.”

Firing on the Rohingya “doesn’t even cross our minds,” the source said. (…)

The same source said Vice Adm Tharathorn Khachitsuwan, commander of the Third Region Navy, and Rear Adm Weeraphan Sukkon, commander of the Royal Navy Phang Nga Base, both believed the navy was being framed by Rohingya who were angry because the navy prevented them from coming ashore.

(…)  ”Those who accuse the navy of hurting or killing the Rohingya should come out and take care of them too. They should not accuse others and not help” to look after the displaced people, the official said.

Thai navy denies shooting Rohingya refugees“, Bangkok Post, March 13, 2013

A spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to contradict with the usual handling of Rohingya boat refugees:

Human Rights Watch has criticized the “push back” policy, saying Thailand is failing to provide the Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law. Thai foreign ministry spokesperson Manasvi Srisodapol denied the existence of such a policy as described by Human Rights Watch and many other organizations.

Fleeing Rohingya Refugees Fired Upon, Says Rights Group“, VOA, March 13, 2013

Compare that to the comments made by Royal Thai Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Surasak Rounroengrom:

“Since the policy is to push them back out to sea, we provide humanitarian aid with food and water, medicine and gas for them to continue their journey. All we do is help them, even fixing their boats [if necessary], before sending them back on their way,” Surasak said.

Navy dismisses reports on Rohingya killings“, The Nation, March 14, 2013

On Monday, at an event of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (see a summary here), Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also addressed the issue of the Rohingya refugees in her keynote speech, stating that Thailand is treating them well and “on humanitarian grounds”. Zoe Daniels from the ABC further asked her about the specific shooting incident:

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: In the case of the navies I think we will work on a fair basis and will be fair to everyone under the legal process.

ZOE DANIEL: Talking though about the Thai Navy shooting and killing refugees, could I ask you will you order an investigation into that incident?

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: Okay, first of all I have to say that we don’t encourage any violence, to do any harm to anyone. This is our policy and of course that we will have to fair to everyone and we will look and investigate the case.

Calls for Thai Govt to investigate alleged navy shooting“, ABC News, March 13, 2013

The likelihood of an impartial and independent investigation into any matter concerning the authorities’ handling of the Rohingya refugees are slim. The military is unwilling let anybody – let alone a civilian body – conduct a probe into this. An internal inquiry by the Internal Security Operations Command into allegations of their officers being involved in human trafficking (we reported) has found no evidence against them, but still has transferred them into a different part of the country.

UPDATE: Shortly after publication of this article, Phuketwan has another story with more witnesses about this incident:

A fisherman told today for the first time of having a gun pointed at him by a military officer in a controversial incident that led to the deaths of an unknown number of boatpeople north of Phuket.

Fisherman Yutdhana Sangtong said today that four other fishermen were in the boat when the gun was pointed at him. They were ordered to leave. ”Go away. These people have been fed already. Get out,” he says he was told at gunpoint.

Later, he heard a volley of gunshots, In the days that followed, Khun Yutdhana says, he found three bodies in the water nearby. Other fishermen around the district reported finding more bodies along the coast, around the village of Hinlad.

Two Accounts of the Boatpeople ‘Shooting’ Leave Questions to Answer“, Phuketwan, March 14, 2013

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.