Myanmar migrants say cast adrift by Thais
Agence France-Presse (AFP) 03 Feb 2009
IDI RAYEUK, Indonesia, Feb 3, 2009 (AFP) – Myanmar boat people found off Indonesia said Tuesday they had been towed out to sea and set adrift by Thai forces, fuelling allegations which have severely embarrassed Bangkok.
About 200 men from Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya community were found huddled in a boat off the northern tip of Sumatra island on Monday, Indonesian navy officer Tedi Sutardi told AFP.
They said they had spent three weeks adrift after the Thais beat them and dumped as many as 10 wooden boats far out to sea with no motors and hardly any provisions after seeking refuge in Thailand.
Human rights groups have said nearly 1,000 Rohingya landed on Thai shores late last year, before being towed out to sea in separate batches with few supplies. Thailand denies any wrongdoing.
One of the survivors told AFP about 20 people on the boat he was in had died during the journey.
“We were caught by the Thai military along with 1,000 other Rohingya people. We were brought to an island and stayed there for two months before being thrown out to sea on wooden boats without engines,” Rahmat, 43, told AFP in a hospital in East Aceh less than a day after being rescued.
“During the journey about 20 people among us died because there was no food and water. We performed prayers in the boat for them before we threw the bodies into the sea… Almost every day someone would die.”
Fishermen found their boat, which was held together with ropes, and handed the migrants over to the Indonesian navy.
About 650 Rohingya migrants were found drifting in Indonesian and Indian waters in January. Scores may still be at sea or dead.
Thailand has vehemently denied the allegations but the latest batch of migrants to have washed up on Sumatra tell identical stories to the 174 who arrived on January 7.
“They said Thai authorities towed them out to sea and set them adrift,” Sutardi said of the people rescued this week.
They also showed scars from beatings they said they had received at the hands of the Thais, he said.
Migrants found off Sumatra on January 7 also bore scars which they said had been inflicted with wooden sticks and rifle butts.
A doctor at the hospital in East Aceh said 56 migrants were being treated for “severe dehydration and trauma.”
Sutardi said the Bengali-speaking migrants claimed they had left their homes in Myanmar’s western Arakan state because they were being forced to embrace Buddhism.
They said the military authorities in the mainly Buddhist country chopped their fingers off if they tried to pray, according to the navy officer.
Father-of-three Rahmat said that while he feared persecution by the Myanmar authorities, he had left his family to seek work in Thailand.
“I’m not going back to Myanmar… we’ll surely be imprisoned for 10 to 20 years. I want to stay here and work. Indonesia can’t force me to go back,” he said.
“Myanmar is a Buddhist country. We Muslims don’t want to follow the infidels there.”
Myanmar’s military rulers effectively deny citizenship rights to the Rohingya, leading to discrimination and abuse and contributing to a regional humanitarian crisis as hundreds try to flee the country by boat every year.
Thailand and Indonesia treat the Rohingya as economic migrants despite pressure from the United Nations refugee agency and independent rights groups to grant them fair and transparent asylum hearings.
Jakarta has said the migrants found on January 7 probably will be repatriated to Myanmar despite their fears of persecution. A foreign ministry spokesman would not comment on the allegations of the latest arrivals.
Indonesia has denied the UN refugee agency access to those who arrived on January 7 and has tried to prevent journalists from interviewing them. It has also refused to comment on their claims of abuse by Thai security forces.
Amnesty International has demanded that Thailand “stop forcibly expelling Rohingyas” and urged regional governments to grant them fair hearings.
Copyright (c) 2009 Agence France-Presse