In the past year an estimated that over 35,000 Rohingya – an ethnic minority group from Burma who are denied citizenship there and targeted in deadly persecution (partly incited by Buddhist monks) – fled on often overcrowded and frail boats to the Andaman Sea. They often land on Thailand’s shorelines instead of their preferred destinations Malaysia or Indonesia. Thailand recognizes them as illegal immigrants rather than as refugees, denying them the right to seek asylum.
The ongoing plight of ethnic Rohingya in Thailand is bleaker as ever, as about 2,000 of them are still awaiting their fate in detention centers across Thailand. A six-month deadline to find third-party countries to take them passed in late July without any results, leaving them in legal limbo.
We reported on the detention conditions the Rohingya refugees are facing in often overcrowded holding cells and their vulnerability to human traffickers earlier in July. Recently, Channel 4 News exposed that human traffickers are maintaining a “number of secret prisons” on the southern Thai island of Tarutao, seemingly under the radar of Thai authorities. There have been also several reports of attempted and successful escapes of Rohingya detainees (e.g. July 31, August 12). In some areas, there have been plans to improve conditions:
On August 9, the Thai minister of social development and human security, Paveena Hongsakula, told the media that the detention and trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand were serious human rights issues. Yet at a cabinet meeting four days later she proposed sending them to refugee camps, a plan that reportedly has the backing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul. (…)
The Thai authorities have also discussed proposals to create alternative centers for the Rohingya or expand the capacity to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centers in Songkhla, Ranong, Prachuab Khiri Kan, and Nongkhai provinces.
“Thailand: Release and Protect Rohingya ‘Boat People’“, Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2013
However, such proposals were met with objections by local residents.
Just on Tuesday, 86 Rohingya escaped from an immigration detention center in the southern Thai province of Songkhla. According to the local police commander the refugees “used blades to cut through iron bars and hacked at cement walls before disappearing into nearby rubber plantations,” but gave no details where these tools came from and why of all places they went to a nearby rubber plantation.
Also, in early August a riot broke out at a detention center in Phang Nga Province resulting in an 8-hour standoff (that could have escalated into something much worse) after authorities wouldn’t allow the detainees to perform prayers marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
That’s where Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat of the Pheu Thai Party went to on Tuesday to assess the conditions at the detention facility. And then he said this…
Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat says the presence of the media encourages Rohingya refugees to “act-up in front of the camera” in order to get sympathy. Mr Wisarn was at the Phang Nga Immigration center yesterday to inspect the facility, following a Rohingya riot there earlier this month.
“The media often knows that the Rohingya are arriving even before the police do,” he said. “And when the media are present, the Rohingya cry and put on a performance designed to get sympathy. When the media are not present, they act normally, and even seem to enjoy their interaction with the officers.”
The “feigned pitifulness” of the Rohingya reported by the press is giving Thailand a bad name, Mr Wisarn said.
“Rohingya play ‘pity card’ for media: Deputy Interior Minister“, Phuket Gazette, August 20, 2013
The deputy interior minister expressed fears that the asylum-seekers would harm locals and discourage tourists from visiting Thailand.
“The monsoon season will be over in two months and more boat people will come. We’ve asked the UNHCR to help fix this problem,” Wisarn Techathirawat, deputy interior minister, told Reuters, adding the UN agency only took on a few asylum-seekers. “The rest of the burden is left to us.”
“Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers escape Thai detention centre“, Reuters, August 20, 2013
It is the apathy of the Thai authorities and politicians towards people fleeing from a country that denies them citizenship and leaves them open to violent and deadly persecution; it is impunity of Thai officials involved in human trafficking, deadly shooting of Rohingyas or towing out refugee boats out on the sea again with the engine removed (not only once); it is so-called forensic experts linking Rohingya refugees to the South Thailand insurgency on dodgy grounds; it is regularly rejecting help from international organizations like UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and at the same time bemoaning the lack of international help; it is contemptful comments like these from public figures such as this deputy interior minister – THAT is giving Thailand a bad name and NOT refugees seeking help and security!
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.