Thai authorities have “sold off” ethnic Rohingya migrants who have arrived in Thailand by boat to people smugglers, according to both local and international media.
Last week we reported on the fate of the 74 Rohingya migrants, among them many women and children, that were intercepted by Thai officials on New Year’s Day. They were traveling in a flimsy fishing boat for weeks in the Andaman Sea on their way to Malaysia. Near Phuket, the boat was towed on land by Thai authorities since their boat was deemed unsafe. As per usual procedure, the refugees would be deported back to Burma – back to the country where they are fleeing from targeted violence against them that has killed at least 88 people and displaced over 100,000.
However, they never made it across the border. As previously reported, the refugees were put on other boats and sent out to sea again. This has also been ‘confirmed’ by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) – in fact, the 74 Rohingya have always been in the hands of ISOC, according to sources.
Then, BBC News reported on Monday:
The BBC found that boats were being intercepted by the Thai navy and police, with deals then made to sell the people on to traffickers who transport them south towards Malaysia. (…)
We spoke to one of the brokers involved in the deal. They said that 1.5 million baht (about $50,000, £31,500) had been transferred from Malaysia and paid to officials in Thailand. That amount was confirmed to us by other members of the Rohingya community in Thailand.
The Thai authorities told us they believe there are just a few corrupt officials. But in the border town of Ranong a Thai official closely linked with the Rohingya issue told us that working with the brokers was now regarded as the “natural” solution.
“Burmese refugees sold on by Thai officials“, by Jonah Fisher, BBC News, January 21, 2013
On Sunday, the Bangkok Post also reported the alleged involvement of ISOC officers in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees. In this case, over 800 migrants have been found in army-led raids in the southern province on Songkhla, believed to be held captive in camps of human traffickers (we reported).
A high ranking police source involved in the case said the investigation found the trafficking of Rohingya migrants – mostly from Myanmar’s [Burma] Rakhine state – to Malaysia via Songkhla had been going on for several years and was under the control of some military officers with ranks from major to colonel. (…)
“Sometimes they even used military trucks to transport these Rohingya migrants,” said the police officer. Sometimes local police stopped the trucks to check them. Soon after, they would get a phone call from someone who claimed to be a senior military officer seeking to release the trucks. (…)
Isoc spokesman Ditthaporn Sasisamit said the command has not received information about the issue from police. However it will cooperate with police to take action against the officers. (…) But so far no evidence had emerged to link them to the trafficking.
“Army officers linked to Rohingya smuggling“, Bangkok Post, January 20, 2013
Reportedly, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha is also aware of the possible incrimination of army officers in people smuggling and has announced his intentions to “eradicate” the “bad army officers”. Whether or not actual consequences will follow his words has yet to be seen.
This follows after the seemingly misplaced remarks of Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn, who slammed the international community for allegedly “not doing enough” to help the Rohingya migrants:
He said while international organisations stressed the need to help the Rohingya, they did not provide enough direct assistance and Thailand was forced to shoulder the burden of looking after them.
“Tanasak demands global help“, Bangkok Post, January 19, 2013
What Thanasak seems to ignore is that Thailand does not always allow foreign help:
Thailand’s response to arriving Rohingya asylum seekers contrasts sharply with the policy in Malaysia, where the authorities have routinely allowed the UN refugee agency access to arriving Rohingya. Those recognized by the agency as refugees are released from immigration detention. (…)
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of “nonrefoulement” – not to return anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be at risk.
“Thailand: Don’t Deport Rohingya ‘Boat People’“, Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2013
While the UNHCR has been granted access to the 800+ migrants in Songkhla province by the Thai government, no specific date has been set yet.
The media attention on the ethnic Rohingya now shifts from their plight of enduring the weeks at sea to those who have sold them off to the people smugglers.
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.