Yingluck Shinawatra

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Pic: AP.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra indulged in some loaded conjecturing yesterday when she warned that the 840-plus Rohingya in detention in Thailand “might join the southern insurgency rather than seek asylum in a third country”. The men, women and children in question were found in Songkla’s Sadao district over the course of several raids last week on smuggling dens run by human trafficking rackets.

Their future is now the subject of a tussle between Thai authorities and the UN refugee agency, although Yingluck made clear her feelings that they are a threat to Thailand and should be deported back to Burma (a veritable lions’ den for the stateless Muslims). That had anyway seemed likely until the UN intervened and stalled the deportation, and Thailand now appears to be feeling the pressure of several years of international condemnation following other grisly episodes involving the Rohingya.

The Prime Minister’s statement, apparently unsubstantiated, is a reckless one, based mainly on the hackneyed assumption that any disenfranchised Muslim is automatically a terrorist threat. It risks directing anti-Muslim sentiment at the Rohingya, who are in Thailand in part to escape that branding.

Many of these people have suffered similar treatment in Burma, where Arakanese politicians and a worrying cross-section of the Burmese population brand them ‘terrorists’ and have embarked on a witch-hunt to expose Rohingya ‘sympathisers’ among Arakanese.

Thai media’s labeling of the group as “illegal migrants”, while technically true, also distorts the picture somewhat. Given the reasons why they are in Thailand – to escape abject poverty, racial and religious persecution, vicious ethno-religious violence, bans on accessing state education and healthcare, and much more – the line between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ is heavily blurred. Deporting these ‘migrants’ could in fact amount to refoulement (international law-speak for returning a victim of persecution to a place of danger), which is illegal.

Close scrutiny of Thailand’s actions is now of the utmost importance, with the Thai navy having been placed on alert for signs of more boatloads of Rohingya. In 2008 the navy towed a boatload of Rohingya back out to sea and left many to dehydrate to death – the subsequent media coverage sparked international condemnation that shone a spotlight on Thailand’s apathetic attitude towards refugees (it is not a signatory of the UN convention on refugees). This focus must continue.

Among the 840 Rohingya was a 10-year-old boy: “According to his story, Nu Rahasim’s parents and siblings all were brutally killed by authorities,” said the Bangkok Post. “The orphaned Nu, who showed scars he said came from beatings and slashes by Myanmar troops, then joined a group of 140 Rohingya who sought help from an affluent man in the violence-plagued [Arakan] state, in the hope of getting out of the country.”

The last thing he needs is for a world leader to suggest he may become a terrorist – it could happen, but no more so than any other disenfranchised youth, whether they be white, black, Muslim or Christian. People aren’t born with extremist tendencies. The 10-year-old probably thought he was one of the lucky ones when he made it to Thailand. Now he is in detention, slandered by a prime minister, and awaits possible return to the country he risked death to flee.