Thailand’s army is secretly detaining boatpeople on an island in the Andaman Sea, before towing them into international waters and abandoning them with only paddles, sources involved in the process said.
The army officially denies holding any Rohingya – Muslims who come from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh – who sail for Southeast Asia at this time of year by the hundreds.
But Ranong provincial governor Wanchart Wongchaichana said all Rohingya who arrive in the area are turned over to the army.
“Rohingya arrested along all the Andaman coast provinces are sent to Internal Security. Go and talk to Colonel Manat [Khongpan],” he said, referring to the regional chief of a controversial army unit, the Internal Security Operations Command.
The Thai navy, local police and marine police also referred queries about the fate of the Rohingya to the army. Sources in all three services said they now transported any detained Rohingya to Ranong and hand them over to the army. Previously, they were handed over to immigration officials.
The sources include officers who were present at Rohingya handovers to the army.
However, Colonel Manat denied having Rohingya in custody. “If I see Rohingya, I will arrest them and hand them to the police. The army does not have Rohingya,” he said, before switching off his mobile phone.
Local sources, including some who said they were recruited by the army to help in the repatriation, said the boatpeople are held on Thailand’s Koh Sai Daeng, or Red Sand Island, before being taken out to sea.
The fate of the Rohingya is increasingly being discussed in regional diplomatic circles, amid reports of them also reaching Indonesia, Malaysia, and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The subject is expected to be raised at next month’s Asean summit in Thailand.
A boat trip to Koh Sai Daeng last week revealed it to be a jungle covered island with a small stretch of golden sand that belied its name.
Although there were no Rohingya in sight, evidence of their presence littered the coast and islands on the way. Distinctive Rohingya vessels could be seen in coastal hamlets, both abandoned as hulks and moored. At one village, a bright-blue vessel was tied to the muddy banks. With its high curves fore and aft, it was clearly not a traditional Thai boat.
Villagers told us that it had been sailed to Thailand by Rohingya from Bangladesh, where most of the voyages begin. Another vessel, also said to have been used by the Rohingya, sat nearby.
A fisherman in one Ranong village said: “They tried to keep them at first on Koh Kang Cow (Bat Island). But tourists also came to see the bats, so they moved to Koh Sai Daeng.”
A woman living in a village close to a nearby army base backed up the fisherman’s observation: “The army put the Rohingya on Koh Sai Daeng. They take food and water out there almost every day.”
The next day, on our way to Koh Sai Daeng, we passed several hulks in the mangroves and along the shores. We were told these vessels had also been sailed to the region by Rohingya.
As we circled Koh Sai Daeng, a large high-prowed hulk sat on the beach – another Rohingya vessel, we were told. As we watched, a group of men jumped from a boat onto the sand. They were not wearing uniforms, but the sources with us said they were soldiers.
It lies not far from Koh Sai Dam (Black Sand Island), which is home to a community of 100 Muslim and Buddhist families and includes a mosque and a school. A little further away lies the larger island of Koh Phayam, an increasingly popular tourist destination dotted with resorts and bungalows.
From the sea, no buildings could be seen on Koh Sai Daeng. Sources who said they had been recruited by the army to help transport the Rohingya told us that the boatpeople – all men – are kept in rough shelters and fed well until they recovered from their exhausting journey. Then the army takes them back out to sea and releases them.
A source who said he had worked as a liaison between the army and the Rohingya during the repatriation process said that on December 18, a total of 412 boatpeople had been taken to international waters north of Koh Surin (Surin Island) then left there.
That release brought to about 800 the number of Rohingya who have been turned back in this fashion since the army became involved late last year, the source said.
According to local fishermen involved in moving the men, about 80 Rohingya were still being held on Koh Sai Daeng as of last Friday.
“To arrest people when they enter Thai waters then release them in international waters, without motors or sails, would clearly be a violation of international human rights,” said Chris Lewa, a Bangkok-based social worker who is seeking better treatment for the Rohingya boatpeople.
She said that brokers in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Malaysia were encouraging desperate Rohingya to make the dangerous boat journey to Thailand despite the possibility that they could be turned back.
Even if the unwelcome migration does present a security threat, as the army claims, the way the Rohingya are treated may contravene international law, Ms Lewa said.
Thai authorities have long been concerned about the arrival of large numbers of Rohingya, fearing some of them may head south to join the long-running Muslim insurgency.
In March last year, then prime minister Samak Sundaravej asked the navy to find a suitable island on which to detain the Rohingya.
But the idea of holding them in such a facility met outcry from human rights advocates and was supposedly shelved.
At the time, military chief Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit said of the Rohingya sneaking in to Thailand: “The graph is rising and it is worrying, and we have to try to solve the problem.”
Rohingya usually arrive in Thailand from November to April, while seas are at their calmest.
According to official figures, in 2005-2006, 1,225 arrived in Thailand; in 2006-2007, there were 2,763. In 2007-2008, there were 4,886. From November 26 to December 25 last year, 659 Rohingya were detained in eight separate incidents.
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian in Phuket