Phuket Boatpeople Trucked Out as Others Are Loaded into Longtails and ‘Given 4000 Baht to Go’

source from Phuket Wan, 19 Aug 2011

Rohingya boatpeople: questions over whether this is a new policy

Rohingya boatpeople: questions over whether this is a new policy
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PHUKET: A group of Rohingha boatpeople imprisoned on Phuket since January were trucked to the border port of Ranong today – a day after other would-be-refugees appeared to have been repatriated to Burma in highly unusual circumstances.

The 33 men and boys from Phuket had been kept in cramped conditions in cells at Phuket Immigration headquarters in Phuket City since coming ashore in Phuket in February. Two were said to have difficulty standing up straight when they were loaded onto a police truck today.

All were reported to be pale after more than six months imprisoned with little or no sunlight and exercise.

Their trip north marks what could be a new approach by the incoming Pheu Thai government to a long-standing international issue. Whether it has been done with the knowledge of other members of Asean is not clear.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, come from Arakan in north Burma but are not recognised as having citizenship rights in that country. Thailand’s policy over the past two-and-a-half years has varied from pushing back the unwanted arrivals in unseaworthy vessels to keeping them in detention indefinitely, without hope of being set free.

But yesterday, Phuketwan has learned, a group of 70 Rohingya were placed in three longtails in Ranong, north of Phuket, each given 4000 baht by a person who said she represented a non-government aid organisation, and allowed to leave Thailand.

Where they go may depend on the people steering the boats. The departure of the three vessels, followed by the four-hour road trip north today by the group who had been captive in Phuket, comes as the new Pheu Thai Government takes over from the Democrat-led government.

What’s not plain is whether the Burmese Government is now accepting back Rohingya boatpeople, or whether the three vessels that set off from the Customs pier at Ranong in Thailand yesterday were doing so without the knowledge of the Burmese government.

Adding to the mystery was a report that a woman who handed 4000 baht to each of the 70 boatpeople as they boarded the longtails said that she was a representative from the Jesuit Refugee Service, a highly-regarded Catholic aid group.

A spokesperson for another aid group associated with the Rohingya said it would be uncharacteristic for the Jesuit Refugee Service to be involved in a set of circumstances that appears to leave the Rohingya open to people-trafficking.

However, changes in many long-standing policies are reported to be taking place in Burma as the junta in control and a newly-elected Parliament appease international critics.

And Thailand just this week did gain a new and inexperienced Foreign Minister, Dr Surapong Tovijakchaiyakul, who has already been criticised for his rapid approval of fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s application to make a trip to Japan.

What Phuketwan can say with certainty is that the Immigration department’s detention of Rohingya in numbers has strained the budgets of local holding centres. Funding allocations do not account for having large groups of people held prisoner for long periods.

Whether the sudden shift of captive Rohingya to Ranong and into longtail boats is a change in policy or a convenient but short-term solution to Thailand’s Rohingya problem will only become clear as the United Nations and other organisations ask the new government for an explanation of what is going on.

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