UPDATE: This story was initially made by the ABC‘s Zoe Daniels in cooperation with Phuketwan, here is her report.
According to reports, between two and 15 Rohingya migrants were killed by Thai military troops who opened fire on them in a botched boat transfer north of Phuket.
The killings, which are said to have occurred on February 22, came during a botched attempt by the military to transfer about 20 would-be refugees from the large boat on which they arrived from Burma (Myanmar) with 110 others, to a much smaller vessel.
When some feared they would be separated from family members, they jumped in the water and the military men opened fire during the predawn incident, the witnesses said.
Survivors Habumara, 20, Rerfik, 25, and Jamar, 16, said yesterday that they swam for their lives when the shooting broke out. They are currently being sheltered by sympathetic villagers. (…)
The three survivors said they believed that the killers were members of the Thai Navy, but village residents said they probably belonged to another branch of the Thai military.
Previous abuses of the Muslim Rohingya have been carried out by other arms of the Thai military or operatives trained as paramilitaries.
Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khajitsuwan, the Commander of Thai Navy Three, which patrols the Andaman coast, declined to comment.
“Thai Military Opened Fire and Killed Rohingya North of Phuket, Say Boatpeople, Villagers“, Phuket Wan, March 7, 2013
The shooting is the latest incident in the mass exodus of the ethnic Rohingya people, a Muslim minority fleeing from sectarian violence in Burma. According to statistics from the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, over 13,000 Rohingya left Burma in 2012. Reportedly, another 3,000 have fled in the first two months of 2013.
The winter months is where the Andaman sea sees the highest activity of refugee boats, given the relatively calm sea conditions. The main destinations are Malaysia and Indonesia, but many of these boats are either washed ashore or intercepted by security forces near the Thai coastline. Thailand does not regard the Rohingya as asylum seekers, but illegal economic migrants.
In recent years, the standard procedure by the Thai authorities in handling intercepted Rohingya refugee boats is to “help on” their journey by supplying them with food, water and fuel and to tow them out to sea again. Should a boat be deemed unsafe or washed ashore, the refugees will be detained and deported back to the Burmese border. As they are not regarded as Burmese citizens, this leaves them in legal limbo and vulnerable to human traffickers waiting behind the border.
There are also reports of abuse and involvement in human trafficking by Thai authorities. It was reported in January that 74 Rohingya were sold off to people smugglers by Thai authorities, specifically the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). An internal investigation has found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.
In late February, the Associated Press reported the Thai navy intercepted a boat, removed the engine and left them floating for 25 days. According to surviving boat refugees rescued by Sri Lankan navy, 97 people died of starvation. This allegation is nothing new as the Thai navy has faced a similar accusation in 2009. Fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Bangkok Pundit has more on this here.
Currently, there are over 1,000 Rohingya migrants in Thai detention, most of them found in a raid on illegal trafficker camps in the deep South of Thailand. Their fate is currently unknown, but the Thai state has pledged to provide them shelter for 6 months while a third country is being found to accept them.
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.