Phuket-Bound Burmese Among 55 Nabbed by Navy Patrol

source from Phuket Wan, 9 August 2011

PHUKET: A boatload of 55 Burmese illegal workers and children – some destined for Phuket – was apprehended by a Royal Thai Navy patrol boat early today.

The interception that the trafficker steering the traditional Thai longtail boat would have preferred to avoid took place in waters off Ranong that were previous made notorious by the Rohingya pushbacks of 2009.

The trafficker jumped into the sea and escaped when the Navy patrol came alongside his vessel off Bat Island, in the Andaman Sea north of Phuket, at 3am today.

The longtail boat had sailed from Victoria Point in Burma – opposite the Thai port of Ranong – bound for Bat Island. On the island, the human cargo was to be transferred to a speedboat to carry them to the port of Kuraburi on the mainland in Phang Nga, Phuket’s neighboring province.

Instead, the Navy brought the would-be illegal immigrants – there were 44 males and eight females on board, with three children – to the mainland.

Navy interrogators were told that the party was to split up in Kuraburi, with some Burmese heading for Phuket, others to Bangkok, and a third group to Phang Nga. It is not known how much the passengers paid the trafficker to transfer them to Thailand.

Bat Island was where the Army and paramilitary volunteers held Rohingya boatpeople in 2008-2009 before an increasing number of tourists going to visit the bat caves forced the transfer of the covert operation to Koh Sai Daeng (Red Sand Island) nearby.

From Koh Sai Daeng, where the Rohingya were held in secret, boatloads were pushed out to sea in unpowered vessels without sufficient food or water, to an uncertain fate. Hundreds are believed to have died before survivors reached Indonesia and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

That policy was abandoned once it was exposed by a Phuketwan team working with the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong.

Burmese illegal immigrants are easier to deal with than Rohingya because they have citizenship and can be transferred back across the border. The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority living mostly in Burma, are not accepted back by Burmese authorities.

Rohingya who arrived on Phuket in January are still being held in cramped conditions in small cells at Phuket Immigration office, with more reportedly in similar accommodation in Phang Nga. Another boatload, held since January 2009, remains in detention in Bangkok.

Concerns are held for their mental and physical well-being because authorities have nor revealed whether they are permitted exercise on Phuket and in Phang Nga.

Two Rohingya teenagers died while being held in cramped conditions without exercise or sunlight in Ranong in 2009.

It’s estimated that the number of legal and illegal Burmese on Phuket could run as high as 200,000.

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