Thailand Likely to Repatriate Rohingya

Burmese ethnic minority members could face persecution if they are returned home.

rohingyatomalaysiamap305.jpg Two boats carrying Rohingya from Arakan state washed ashore in Thailand on their way to Malaysia.

Two groups of Rohingya are in police custody in Thailand after their boats came ashore on their way to Malaysia and will most likely be repatriated to Burma where they face persecution, according to officials in Thailand and an advocacy group.

The Muslim, Bengali-speaking Rohingya from Burma’s northern Arakan state are described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project in Geneva, told RFA that the 158 mostly Rohingya men being temporarily held in southern Thailand could face persecution upon their return.

“It looks like they are going to be handed over to immigration, but I am extremely worried about reports … that they are going to be deported to Myanmar,” she said, using Burma’s official name.

“We all know that Myanmar does not accept Rohingya back, so when they mention deportation I am concerned that this could mean that they might put them back on boats in the sea.”

One boat carrying 91 men arrived in Thailand’s Trang province on Jan. 22 followed by a second boat the next day carrying 67 on Sarai Island in Satun province. Both boats suffered engine failures on their way to Malaysia.

Thai Police Colonel Putthipong Musikul, of the immigration office in Songkhla province where one group is being held, said they would be sent back to Burma, probably within one or two days, AFP reported.

"We are providing basic humanitarian assistance with food and water, but they were illegal immigrants. We have to follow our laws," said Visit Tangpong, police chief in Trang province's Kantang district, according to the report.

Facing repatriation

"I can be anywhere, except in Myanmar, if I went back I would be dead," Rohingya Noori Shalom told CNN in an interview from a police station in Satun province.

He said he came from the Burmese town of Mondul, leaving his wife and two children behind to find a better life.

According to reports, a total of eight boats carrying Rohingya had left Arakan state and Bangladesh since Dec. 20, though there have been no reports of the other boats’ whereabouts.

While 28,000 minority Rohingya are in official refugee camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live in the Burma-Bangladesh border areas, the annual Human Rights Watch report released this week said.

When asked whether Thailand would consider sending the Rohingya on to Malaysia where they hoped to go, Lewa said, “I doubt very much that the Thais would do that.”

“One of my worries is that they would try to send them … to the Burmese Navy. [That they] would bring them to the Myanmar side, instead of to the Malaysian side.”

“And then what will the Burmese Navy do? … We have received some rumors that if they catch them close to Bangladesh they would send the boats back to Bangladesh … but that if they find them in any other place, to just shoot them.”

Post-election crackdown

The Rohingya were believed to be fleeing a crackdown by Burma’s military junta on the minority group following the country’s November elections, according to Lewa.

“During the election campaign, the authorities in Burma were actually promising citizenship to the Rohingya. They also allowed the Rohingya to vote during the election and allowed them to stand as candidates. During that time there was a relaxation of some of the restrictions,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the day after the election, that was already changed. The restrictions were put in place again … [and] are more than they were before.”

Lewa said that during the campaign, Burmese leaders had visited Arakan state, granting permission and providing funds to rebuild a mosque. But immediately after the election, the same leaders gave orders to stop the work.

Also, she said, a number of Rohingya opposition party members were arrested in the aftermath of the elections, casting doubts on the ethnic group’s future under any post-election Burmese administration.

A safer destination?

Lewa said that since a boat full of Rohingya made it safely to Malaysia last year, brokers who organize the perilous journeys came to see the country as a safer destination than Thailand, which drew criticism in 2009 for towing a boat of the refugees out to sea and leaving them adrift.
“The boat that arrived in March 2010 … showed that it was possible to arrive in Malaysia and that the Malaysians would rescue them.”

She said that reports have suggested that in the eight boats which have set sail since the end of December, all passengers were told by their agents that they were heading to Malaysia, not to Thailand.

Lewa also called on Southeast Asian countries to agree upon a regional response to protect the Rohingya.

“Something should happen in Burma to improve the situation [for the Rohingya] and much more pressure should be placed on the [Burmese] authorities. Now with the parliament and the new government there is still some hope that this could happen,” she said.

The Rohingya drew global attention in 2009 when the Thai military was accused of towing the boats of as many as 1,000 asylum-seekers out to sea and leaving them to drift at the mercy of the currents without adequate food and water.

The Rohingya claim they are Muslim descendants of Persian, Turkish, Bengali, and Pathan traders, who migrated to Burma as early as the 7th century. But their ethnic identity is not widely recognized.

Reported by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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