Thailand's new boat people

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BANGKOK — In early January, India’s coast guard happened upon a wooden barge, half-sinking into the Bay of Bengal.

It was packed with roughly 100 people — frail, starving and stateless. According to reports, they’d fled refugee camps near the Burmese-Bangladesh border, pushed east toward wealthier lands and drifted near Thailand’s touristed island chains.

There, they claim, Thailand’s navy intercepted their boat, detained them in filthy conditions for a week, tossed several bound men into the open sea and finally set their barge adrift in international waters — with no sail, scarcely any food and little hope of survival. They floated aimlessly for 15 days.

Such is the latest indignity for the Rohingya people.

There are about 1 million Rohingya, with roughly 800,000 living along Burma’s coast and another 200,000 or so in refugee camps across the Bangladeshi border. They are Sunni Muslims and ethnic kin of Bengalis, who are also copper-skinned and speak a similar pitchy tongue.

They were once citizens of a lush kingdom stretching across modern-day Burma’s coastline. But, in 1784, Burmans invaded and sent them fleeing towards Bengali territory. Since then, they have been ground down by the British empire, natural disasters and Burmese dictators. Even in their ancestral homeland, human rights groups say, they are sporadically tortured, dragged into forced labor drives and denied citizenship.

And so they continue to flee.

“The Burmese objective is a clean sweep to make it a Muslim-free region,” said Numul Islam, an exiled Rohingya heading the Arakan Rohingya National Organization in London. “We are stateless in our own country. So we have nothing to lose.”

The Indian coast guard’s discovery of the drifting, would-be Rohingya refugees — and their bizarre claims of abuse at the hands of Thailand’s navy — has triggered scattered reports from around Southeast Asia. The Rohingyas rescued in the Bay of Bengal have given interviews to the Bangkok-based Arakan Project, headed by long-time pro-Rohingya activist Chris Lewa.

According to interview transcripts with rescued Rohingyas provided by Lewa, the 400 or so refugees were cut loose in international waters with only four bags of rice and little fresh water. Only 100 were rescued, with the rest assumed dead.

Starving, some Rohingya were lulled into the ocean by a distant light on the 10th day, according to the interviews. Fearing they would “lose the land forever,” hunger-wracked Rohingyas attempted to swim to the horizon.

“We saw many drowning, one by one, as the current was carrying them away and none of them had any energy left to swim,” one Rohingya told Arakan Project.

Thailand’s official figures show a rising number of intercepted Rohingya refugees, with more than 4,800 picked up through 2007 to 2008, up from about 2,700 the previous 12 months. As Thailand’s foreign ministry investigates, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has insisted that no inhumane treatment is taking place.

“We don’t have a policy to violate human rights,” Abhisit told reporters.

Human rights watchdog groups, however, claim Thai seamen have pushed refugees back into the sea before. Rohingyas who washed onto Indonesian shores have made similar claims. Hong Kongi’s South China Morning Post published photos, shot by tourists, of detained Rohingyas lined up in rows at “Donald Duck Bay,” part of the heavily touristed Similan islands. Though the pictures resemble other photos of Rohingya detentions released by Thailand’s navy itself, the tourists claim these refugees were whipped in plain sight.

“The way they’re treated, it’s very questionable,” Islam said. “All these people in a boat, without any water, totally indebted to the sea and left to die … it’s very objectionable.”

The United Nations High Court of Refugees is now investigating the Rohingya’s treatment in Thailand. For now, they have the prime minister’s blessing, but Abhisit has pushed them to confront the problem at its source: Burma.

For Rohingya — forced to society’s margins in their native Burma — the sea is one of the only places they can flee. The Burmese junta, lumping them in with Bengalis across the border, casts them as Muslim invaders who belong in Bangladesh. British colonialists who created the river border between Burma and Bangladesh, illogically dividing Rohingya-Bengali territory, have inadvertently helped support the junta’s claim.

“Some would say they’re all illegal immigrants of Bangladesh,” said Bertil Lintner, an author and Burma expert based in Thailand. “But they’ve been there for hundreds of years, long before Bangladesh even existed.”

Rohingya, unlike other oppressed minorities in Burma such as the Karen or Shan, lack a well-funded rebel force to defend against junta offensives. The few fledgling Rohingya rebel groups are mostly concentrated in Bangladesh border country, Lintner said.

Some were swept under the Taliban’s wing and sent to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lintner has reported. But even in Afghanistan, the Rohingya were given back-breaking and dangerous jobs: toting supplies and sweeping for mines.

Thai fears that refugee Rohingyas will fall in with Islamic militants waging a separatist war in Thailand’s deep south are misguided, Lintner said. “These are people looking for jobs,” he said. “Nothing else.”

In a better world, Islam said, Rohingyas would return to their historic home and live “as responsible citizens of Burma.” But as long as the junta’s cruelty persists, and the Rohingyas remain unwanted by all of Asia, this unwanted tribe will continue wandering the seas in search of better lands.

And Burma’s Rohingya problem will again wash onto Thai shores.