Burmese asylum seekers rescued by Sri Lanka’s navy last week said they floated at sea for 25 days and 97 people died of starvation after Thailand’s navy intercepted them and forcibly removed their boat’s engine. The Thai navy has denied the allegation.
Shofiulla, 24, said 130 people were on the boat when the journey to Malaysia began on 10 January. They had paid $465 each.
After 10 days’ travel, he said the boat reached the Thai border and two boats from the Thai navy intercepted them. Shofiulla said the navy personnel took their engine.
“Then we (had) no food, no rations … no water. We drank only sea water,” he said, adding that the bodies of the 97 who died over the next 25 days were put into the sea.
Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng, a Thailand Defence Ministry spokesman, denied the allegations.
“This is absolutely not true. The Thai navy officers would not have done that,” he said, adding that similar accusations have been made in the past, including claims that the Thai navy had abused refugees. “The Royal Thai Navy commander has previously made it clear that the Thai officers have treated the boat people according to humanitarian principles.
“There are two approaches in handling the Rohingya: giving them food and help before letting them carry on their sea journey or prosecute them for illegal entry. However, it’s not possible that the Thai navy would have done what they were alleged of doing.”
BP: In January, Thailand detained at least 800 Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from Burma. The international community were concerned they would be deported, but then the Thai government has relented and stated they will not deport the Rohingya. The government stated they would allow the UNHCR to interview the Rohingya, provide them with shelter for 6 months, and assured that they would be treated humanely. Other boats which didn’t make it to the Thai shore were “helped” along the way.
In case you were thinking, doesn’t this story sound familiar? Yes, it does. The same thing happened in December 2008/January 2009* when the Thai military** towed out hundreds of Rohingya boat people, often after removing their motors and the result was that about 500 were missing believed drowned. Rohingyas also popped up in 2010 and also in 2011 with similar stories although again we had Thai denials.
Despite military denials, it is certainly possible that this happened again. Having said that Reuters quotes the Sri Lankan police as stating the survivors told them the engine stalled, which contradicts what the above survivor states. Over the coming days, we will see if we can get confirmation from others on the boat about what happened. There is a big difference between the two stories so far.
Yes, there are limits on Thai resources, but as noted by the asylum seeker quoted in the above story, they were wanting to go to Malaysia. Hence, in such cases where they don’t want to seek asylum in Thailand then, in BP’s view, the Thai military can just help them along (point them in the right direction and give them some food and water). This is not what is alleged what happened here though. Removing the engine – or disabling the engines – is almost a death sentence. In this instance, 97 have alleged to have died. Hence, it is key to know whether the Thai military actually did….
*Below is an excerpt from a previous post which summarizes much of what transpired with the Rohingya when they were found in 2009:
The Nation should think back to the beginning of the year when the Rohingya were towed out to the sea by the Thai military (see here, here, and here). The reason we found about this story because some of the Rohingya boat people who had been towed out to sea by Thai military survived and made it to Indonesia and India after drifting for a number of days without food and water (see here and here). The number who died we will never know – the internal Thai investigation unsurprisingly found nothing – but from statements given to the Indonesian and Indian governments and to the media by survivors, it appears to be in the hundreds. We have extensive coverage by the South China Morning Post and CNN (the CNN reports won a prestigious award) – you also have coverage by the BBC and Al Jazeera, amongst others. We had foreign governments specifically criticize the Thai government handling of the Rohingya.
Then, of course, we saw the typical Thai government and bureaucracy response with the the military (see here and here), the Foreign Minister, a Senator, and a Deputy PM criticize the international media saying they wanted to slander Thailand and that they could not be trusted in their coverage of the Rohingya boat people. Eventually the military admitted they towed out (or in Foreign Ministry speak “escorted“) the Rohingya in their boats and dumped them in the middle of the ocean, but well no action was taken against anyone.
**Corrected, thanks to Alan M in comments