Pressing questions after human trafficking grave found in southern Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 5, 2015 Thailand's military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country's south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.

The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:

"From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death," Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. "It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition."

"Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp 'didn't die violently'", South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015

Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.

That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices' coverage in 2013) - other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.

This has partly contributed to Thailand's poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) - which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.

The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:

[...] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

"Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015

Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:

(...) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. "I've also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive," he said.

This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar's Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. "My mum had to sell our family's land to pay for my ransom. That's why I am still safe," he said. (...)

The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. "They were either shot or clubbed to death," he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.

"Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps", by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015

Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as "huge", according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.

Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to "punish" local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar's police station, and the border patrol police.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities - given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it - and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.

Burma, Cambodia 'hail' Thai junta: With neighbors like these...

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 5, 2014

For the Thai military, launching a coup in Thailand is one thing, but maintaining it is a whole other task. Probably one of the hardest jobs for the junta is to seek universal legitimacy from the international community - especially since "the transition of power" was very one-sided, to say the least.

So it comes as no surprise that the international reactions to the coup of May 22, especially from the Western world ranged from concern to condemnation (e.g. from the US and Australia) and sanctions against Thailand (from the EU), while China seized the opportunity for increased engagement with the military junta - which also explains why a group of Chinese businessmen were among the first to meet army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the coup.

Despite the backlash from the West, the junta claims* some positive acknowledgment from Vietnam, and it appears that other neighboring countries are equally amicable toward the Thai generals - resulting in some utterly bizarre statements:

Thailand’s military on Friday compared its seizure of power in May to restore stability after months of unrest to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s former junta in 1988 to snuff out a pro-democracy movement.

Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest and demonstrations by pro and anti-government protesters.

Perhaps unwittingly, the deputy chief of the Thai junta likened its seizure of power to one of the darkest chapters in the rule of Burma’s junta, its crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed. 

“[Burma's] government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. [Burma] had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand’s armed forces, following a visit to Bangkok by Burma’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing. (...)

The visit by Burma’s military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, marks the second by a foreign official since the coup, after that of Malaysia’s defense minister.

-"Thai Junta Compares its Coup to Burma’s 1988 Crackdown", Reuters, July 4, 2014

In a separate meeting with junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his support for the NCPO solving Thailand's problems. [Burma] understood the situation, said spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhapatipak*.

-"Junta did right thing: Myanmar chief", The Nation, July 5, 2014

*(Side note: Almost all news where foreign envoys supposedly express their "understanding for the political situation in Thailand" are almost exclusively made by a Thai junta spokesman or member - so it's to be taken with a grain of salt.)

A lot can be said about the apparent history-related blind spot not only on the Burmese army's part, but also its Thai counterpart (and we already had a few examples of selective historic knowledge by Thai politicians in the past).

Reuters South East Asia Correspondent Andrew Marshall sums it up best:

In related news, there's also some praise coming from the other side of the Thai border:

In a bid to reinforce the legitimacy of his government amid an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday looked west for an analogy.

He chose one that didn’t involve a ballot box.

Instead, he pointed to Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, which was formed after the military’s May coup and immediately began clamping down on dissenting voices, as a suitable parallel.

Both governments had received royal approval, Hun Sen said, and were therefore equally legitimate.

-"Gov’t as legit as junta: premier", Phnom Penh Post, July 4, 2014

Hun Sen's evident approval comes after he criticized the Thai junta for its handling of Cambodian migrant workers amidst a sudden mass-exodus in which an estimated 250,000 Cambodians have returned from Thailand, many out of panic after the junta announced a crackdown on illegal migrant workers and rumors of abuse in police custody.

However, this also follows the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a Thai ultra-nationalist activist who was arrested and jailed in 2011 after illegally crossing the border in late 2010 to claim that a disputed border region belongs to Thailand. Upon Veera's return, 14 Cambodians have been released from Thai custody, but Thai officials have stopped short of stating that this was a prisoner swap.

On one hand, the Thai military states that it is "unfazed" by outside reactions (especially from the West), yet at the same time it seemingly gladly accepts legitimizing praise from other, not-so-democratic countries.

With neighboring rulers like these...!

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 3: The Rohingya, unwelcomed and ignored

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2013 In the third part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, we highlight the plight of Southeast Asia's most persecuted refugees, the Rohingya. In Thailand, it seems that they are particularly unwelcomed by authorities.

Ever since neighboring Myanmar has gradually opened up to the world politically and economically in the past few, it has also unearthed the animosity of some against the Rohingya people, an ethnic muslim minority that has been denied citizenship for decades. This animosity grew into hateful violence when deadly riots in Rakhine state in 2012 (and later in other places) displaced over 100,000 Rohingyas.

Many thousands are fleeing Myanmar in overcrowded and fragile vessels, often operated by human traffickers. Preferred destinations - that is if they make it through the Andaman Sea - are Malaysia and Indonesia, but more often than not they either involuntarily arrive in Thailand or are being intercepted by Thai authorities. During the low tide months between October to February, almost 6,000 Rohingyas according to Thai authorities have entered Thai territory.

Because the Thai state regards them as illegal economic immigrants rather than persecuted refugees, they're repeatedly refused asylum and in most cases the Thai authorities are sticking to the policy they euphemistically call "helping on": intercepted refugee vessels are given food, medicine and additional fuel before towed out to sea again on their way elsewhere. Should a boat be deemed unsafe, they will be deported back to Myanmar. There have been past allegations against Thai officials that these boats have been simply set adrift or even removed their engines - as happened again in February this year - with little inquiry and thus consequences.

This year, reports of human trafficking involvement by Thai officials emerged over the months during and following the waves of refugee boats passing Thailand's coastlines. It started with one of them carrying 73 migrants found on New Year's Day, but instead of the usual procedure they were split up and put on other boats. As it turns out, according to an investigation by the BBC, members of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) had sold these people off to human traffickers. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.

However, the allegations did not die down over the course of the year as two investigative reports by Reuters in particular (here and here) have put more weight on these, accompanied most recently by calls to Thailand from the United Nations and the United States to investigate these claims - none of which have taken place so far despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra so far. The same empty-handed result happened after a reported shooting incident in late February during a botched boat transfer killed at least two refugees. Again, calls for a probe were met - like in any other case - with deafening silence. Additionally, around 800 refugees were found in illegal human trafficking camps in south Thailand in January.

Those refugees that were being sheltered in Thailand faced no better conditions. In the summer months, around 2,000 Rohingya were detained in 24 stations across the country mostly located in the South under vastly differing standards. Some were overcrowded and caused the detainees to riot, others were regularly made accessible for human traffickers to lure refugees out. Thai authorities have discussed expanding or building new detention facilities, but this was met with resistance by local residents. The fate of these men, women and children is still to this day unresolved as a deadline by the Thai government to find third-party countries taking them on passed on July 26 with no result, thus leaving them in legal limbo.

The Rohingya issue and the (reported mis-)handling by Thai authorities - largely underreported in the domestic media and thus mostly met with indifference by the general public - is slowly becoming a national shame. But judging by its actions it appears little will change about that attitude: a formerly highly-regarded forensic expert reheated her old claim that some Rohingya might be involved in the insurgency in the deep south and a Thai minister even accused them to be "feigning pitifulness" for the media.

In general, the Thai authorities seemed to be more concerned with its own image rather that the wellbeing of the refugees, as evident just last week when the Royal Thai Navy filed a lawsuit against two journalists from Phuket Wan- who have been diligently reporting on this issue - for defamation and even resorted to invoke the Computer Crimes Act (see yesterday's part), even though these two journalists had been merely quoting from the aforementioned Reuters' story. The lawsuit has been met with criticism, including from the UN.

Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn once accused the international community of leaving Thailand alone to deal with the Rohingya refugees, (perhaps willingly?) oblivious to the fact that Thai authorities have largely denied international aid and refugee organizations access to them. So the question Thailand has to ask itself for the coming year is not what the world can do for Thailand, but rather what Thailand can do to help the Rohingyas?

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Thai minister accuses Rohingya refugees of 'feigning pitifulness'

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2013 In the past year an estimated that over 35,000 Rohingya - an ethnic minority group from Burma who are denied citizenship there and targeted in deadly persecution (partly incited by Buddhist monks) - fled on often overcrowded and frail boats to the Andaman Sea. They often land on Thailand’s shorelines instead of their preferred destinations Malaysia or Indonesia. Thailand recognizes them as illegal immigrants rather than as refugees, denying them the right to seek asylum.

The ongoing plight of ethnic Rohingya in Thailand is bleaker as ever, as about 2,000 of them are still awaiting their fate in detention centers across Thailand. A six-month deadline to find third-party countries to take them passed in late July without any results, leaving them in legal limbo.

We reported on the detention conditions the Rohingya refugees are facing in often overcrowded holding cells and their vulnerability to human traffickers earlier in July. Recently, Channel 4 News exposed that human traffickers are maintaining a "number of secret prisons" on the southern Thai island of Tarutao, seemingly under the radar of Thai authorities. There have been also several reports of attempted and successful escapes of Rohingya detainees (e.g. July 31, August 12). In some areas, there have been plans to improve conditions:

On August 9, the Thai minister of social development and human security, Paveena Hongsakula, told the media that the detention and trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand were serious human rights issues. Yet at a cabinet meeting four days later she proposed sending them to refugee camps, a plan that reportedly has the backing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul. (...)

The Thai authorities have also discussed proposals to create alternative centers for the Rohingya or expand the capacity to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centers in Songkhla, Ranong, Prachuab Khiri Kan, and Nongkhai provinces.

"Thailand: Release and Protect Rohingya ‘Boat People’", Human Rights Watch, August 20, 2013

However, such proposals were met with objections by local residents.

Just on Tuesday, 86 Rohingya escaped from an immigration detention center in the southern Thai province of Songkhla. According to the local police commander the refugees "used blades to cut through iron bars and hacked at cement walls before disappearing into nearby rubber plantations," but gave no details where these tools came from and why of all places they went to a nearby rubber plantation.

Also, in early August a riot broke out at a detention center in Phang Nga Province resulting in an 8-hour standoff (that could have escalated into something much worse) after authorities wouldn't allow the detainees to perform prayers marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

That's where Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat of the Pheu Thai Party went to on Tuesday to assess the conditions at the detention facility. And then he said this...

Deputy Interior Minister Wisarn Techathirawat says the presence of the media encourages Rohingya refugees to “act-up in front of the camera” in order to get sympathy. Mr Wisarn was at the Phang Nga Immigration center yesterday to inspect the facility, following a Rohingya riot there earlier this month.

“The media often knows that the Rohingya are arriving even before the police do,” he said. “And when the media are present, the Rohingya cry and put on a performance designed to get sympathy. When the media are not present, they act normally, and even seem to enjoy their interaction with the officers.”

The "feigned pitifulness" of the Rohingya reported by the press is giving Thailand a bad name, Mr Wisarn said.

"Rohingya play 'pity card' for media: Deputy Interior Minister", Phuket Gazette, August 20, 2013

And this...

The deputy interior minister expressed fears that the asylum-seekers would harm locals and discourage tourists from visiting Thailand.

"The monsoon season will be over in two months and more boat people will come. We've asked the UNHCR to help fix this problem," Wisarn Techathirawat, deputy interior minister, told Reuters, adding the UN agency only took on a few asylum-seekers. "The rest of the burden is left to us."

"Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers escape Thai detention centre", Reuters, August 20, 2013

It is the apathy of the Thai authorities and politicians towards people fleeing from a country that denies them citizenship and leaves them open to violent and deadly persecution; it is impunity of Thai officials involved in human traffickingdeadly shooting of Rohingyas or towing out refugee boats out on the sea again with the engine removed (not only once); it is so-called forensic experts linking Rohingya refugees to the South Thailand insurgency on dodgy grounds; it is regularly rejecting help from international organizations like UN's refugee agency UNHCR and at the same time bemoaning the lack of international help; it is contemptful comments like these from public figures such as this deputy interior minister - THAT is giving Thailand a bad name and NOT refugees seeking help and security!

Rohingya stuck in Thai detention vulnerable to traffickers

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2013 Over 2,000 Rohingya refugees are detained in Thailand as more reports about inhumane conditions, human trafficking and rape surface while efforts to relocate them to another country have so far failed. With a deadline looming very soon, they are now threatened to be stuck in limbo.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority group denied citizenship and targeted in ongoing deadly persecution in Burma (partly incited by Buddhist monks), have fled on often overcrowded and frail vessels in the Andaman Sea in attempts to reach Malaysia or Indonesia, but more often than not land on Thailand's shorelines or are being intercepted by Thai authorities and either towed out back to sea again (euphemistically labeled by Thai officials as a "help-on"-policy) or deported back to Burma, since the Kingdom regards their status as those of illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers.

In recent years, there were numerous reports of mistreatment by Thai officials during these "help-on"-procedures such as setting refugee boats adrift on the sea again and sometimes allegedly even removing the engine. Earlier this January, we reported on allegations that officials of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) have sold off 74 Rohingyas to human traffickers. Later in March, the Thai Navy faced allegations of shooting and killing as many as 20 refugees that were fleeing in the water from a failed boat-transfer. In both cases there were no impartial investigations and internal inquiries have come up without any results.

Those stranded or rescued by Thai officials - as many as 800 were found in human trafficker camps - are put into detention. According to statistics by Muslim humanitarian groups and published in the Bangkok Post, 2,018 Rohingya refugees are currently detained at 24 stations of vastly different standards, mostly located in the South of Thailand but also some as far as Chiang Rai in the North.

In the late May, Channel 4 News visited the second-largest detention center in Phang Nga and found the conditions to be dismal:

We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.

(...) We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.

(...) This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.

"The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp", by John Sparks, Channel 4 News, May 31, 2013

The report goes on to say that the Thai authorities are aware of the problems and "alternative arrangements are being identified." How these alternatives look (e.g. additional buildings) was not said. However, in some areas, plans for the construction of additional facilities were met with protests of locals.

In other locations, there are reports of female refugees falling victims to human traffickers and sexual assault:

[H]uman traffickers – both Rohingya and Thai – were able to gain access to the shelter in Phang Nga province soon after a group of about 70 Rohingya women and children arrived there in January. Korlimula, who was identified to Human Rights Watch as working for a Rohingya-Thai human trafficking gang, told Narunisa that he would reunite her with her husband in Malaysia for a fee of 50,000 baht (approximately US$1600).

On May 27, Korlimula helped Narunisa and her two children to escape from the shelter and took her to meet with other associates. Narunisa and her children were put on a pickup truck driven by a man, whom she later learned is a police officer at Khao Lak police station in Phang Nga province. The three of them were taken to six hideouts in the province, and in each case locked up against their will. At the final hideout on Koh Yipoon Island in Phang Nga province’s Kuraburi district, Korlimula repeatedly assaulted and raped Narunisa at knifepoint over the course of three days, from June 9 to 11. After that, Narunisa and her children were dumped on the street in Kuraburi district and the three of them made their way back to the shelter on June 18. Narunisa reported the rape case at Kuraburi district police station on June 18, and then filed a formal complaint against Korlimula on June 21.

"Thailand: Traffickers Access Government-run ‘Shelter’", Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2013

Such cases reveal that some human trafficker rings are colluding with local officials and politicians. Bangkok Post reports that both the human trafficker and the police officer have been charged.

The refugees have been waiting for at least six months, while Thailand is trying to find another country to take them in, but has yet to find one. The deadline of July 26 is running out, but the question about the fate of the more than 2,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in a legal limbo in Thailand's detention centers remains unanswered.

Report: Thai military killed Rohingya migrants in botched boat transfer

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 7, 2013 According to reports, between two and 15 Rohingya migrants were killed by Thai military troops who opened fire on them in a botched boat transfer north of Phuket.

The killings, which are said to have occurred on February 22, came during a botched attempt by the military to transfer about 20 would-be refugees from the large boat on which they arrived from Burma (Myanmar) with 110 others, to a much smaller vessel.

When some feared they would be separated from family members, they jumped in the water and the military men opened fire during the predawn incident, the witnesses said.

Survivors Habumara, 20, Rerfik, 25, and Jamar, 16, said yesterday that they swam for their lives when the shooting broke out. They are currently being sheltered by sympathetic villagers. (...)

The three survivors said they believed that the killers were members of the Thai Navy, but village residents said they probably belonged to another branch of the Thai military.

Previous abuses of the Muslim Rohingya have been carried out by other arms of the Thai military or operatives trained as paramilitaries.

Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khajitsuwan, the Commander of Thai Navy Three, which patrols the Andaman coast, declined to comment.

"Thai Military Opened Fire and Killed Rohingya North of Phuket, Say Boatpeople, Villagers", Phuket Wan, March 7, 2013

The shooting is the latest incident in the mass exodus of the ethnic Rohingya people, a Muslim minority fleeing from sectarian violence in Burma. According to statistics from the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR, over 13,000 Rohingya left Burma in 2012. Reportedly, another 3,000 have fled in the first two months of 2013.

The winter months is where the Andaman sea sees the highest activity of refugee boats, given the relatively calm sea conditions. The main destinations are Malaysia and Indonesia, but many of these boats are either washed ashore or intercepted by security forces near the Thai coastline. Thailand does not regard the Rohingya as asylum seekers, but illegal economic migrants.

In recent years, the standard procedure by the Thai authorities in handling intercepted Rohingya refugee boats is to "help on" their journey by supplying them with food, water and fuel and to tow them out to sea again. Should a boat be deemed unsafe or washed ashore, the refugees will be detained and deported back to the Burmese border. As they are not regarded as Burmese citizens, this leaves them in legal limbo and vulnerable to human traffickers waiting behind the border.

There are also reports of abuse and involvement in human trafficking by Thai authorities. It was reported in January that 74 Rohingya were sold off to people smugglers by Thai authorities, specifically the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). An internal investigation has found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.

In late February, the Associated Press reported the Thai navy intercepted a boat, removed the engine and left them floating for 25 days. According to surviving boat refugees rescued by Sri Lankan navy, 97 people died of starvation. This allegation is nothing new as the Thai navy has faced a similar accusation in 2009. Fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Bangkok Pundit has more on this here.

Currently, there are over 1,000 Rohingya migrants in Thai detention, most of them found in a raid on illegal trafficker camps in the deep South of Thailand. Their fate is currently unknown, but the Thai state has pledged to provide them shelter for 6 months while a third country is being found to accept them.

Forensic 'expert' links Rohingya to Thailand insurgency

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 28, 2013 The fate of the ethnic Rohingya refugees has gained much public attention recently with more refugees boats passing by the western coastline of Thailand, some of them being intercepted by Thai authorities. Earlier this month the Thai army discovered about 900 mostly Rohingya migrants in Southern Thailand held by human traffickers in two detention camps (we reported).

It seems that some Thai officials play a questionable role in the handling of the Rohingya refugees (as they have already in the past). While the refugees have been permitted to stay in Thailand for half a year, some authorities allegedly sold the Rohingya refugees to human traffickers instead of deporting them back to Burma, where they are fleeing sectarian, targeted violence against them.

Also, Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn reportedly slammed the international community for "not doing enough" to help the migrants - at the same time apparently oblivious that the Thai authorities have regularly blocked international agencies such as the UNHCR from accessing them in the past.

And then there was this odd remark by Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, as reported by fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade:

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra indulged in some loaded conjecturing yesterday when she warned that the 840-plus Rohingya in detention in Thailand “might join the southern insurgency rather than seek asylum in a third country”. (...)

The Prime Minister’s statement, apparently unsubstantiated, is a reckless one, based mainly on the hackneyed assumption that any disenfranchised Muslim is automatically a terrorist threat. It risks directing anti-Muslim sentiment at the Rohingya, who are in Thailand in part to escape that branding.

"Thai PM: Rohingya ‘might join southern insurgency’", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, January 16, 2013

Reckless indeed. Coinciding with this, The Nation reported Sunday:

Some Rohingya migrants arrested for illegal entry have confessed to being trained by insurgents to undertake attacks in the restive deep South, according to a highly-placed source in the Justice Ministry's Forensic Science Institute.

The source said the men had entered Thailand through Mae Sot in northern Tak province and later moved to Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat in the far south. Their case was discovered in 2009. (...)

RKK refers to the armed wing of the deep South insurgent movement. It stands for Runda Kumpulan Kecil, a Malay name that means "small patrol groups". (...)

Authorities also found that some illegal immigrants had smuggled explosive substances from India, she said.

"'2 Rohingya trained by RKK Muslim insurgents'", The Nation, January 26, 2013

This is quite sensationalist and highly unreflective reporting even for The Nation* to base it off one single source. As usual, Thai media outlets would only sought comments from authorities and officials and take them at face value. But what about that 'highly-placed' source'? A female from the Justice Ministry's Forensic Science Institute (see previous quote above) - hm, that can be only one person...!

After running blood tests on detained Rohingyas in the South, a forensic expert has found that some of them use drugs, and a few of them have been trained by the RKK Muslim insurgents.

Central Institute of Forensic Science Director Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand has revealed that the DNA tests on over 800 Rohingyas indicated that some of them use drugs, but she could not find any evidence that they are connected with drug dealers.

"Forensic expert: Some Rohinyas have connection with RKK", NNT, January 28, 2013

AHA! Yes, the (formerly) prominent forensic scientist with the flashy hairstyles, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, indeed links the Rohingya refugees to the violent insurgency in Southern Thailand. Quite amazing that she and her team can - according to the article - determine from blood samples, drug tests and DNA examinations that some refugees are active insurgents...!

Here's the kicker: this is not the first time she has done this. As hinted in the news stories quoted above, most of her stunning claims originate from 2009, when she said that "explosive residue" was found on a Rohingya refugee boat. And as Bangkok Pundit noted back then, she might have based her 'findings' on the GT200 - the infamous and expensive fraudulent bomb-sniffing device, which is nothing more than an empty plastic shell with a dowsing rod on it. It is (despite real scientific evidence about its ineffectiveness) still in use by the armed forces today - and also still enjoys the continued endorsement of Dr. Pornthip!

It is one thing that there might be people with criminal or other questionable backgrounds among the refugees, but linking them to the Southern Thailand insurgency can only add to the demonization of the ethnic Rohingya, who are suffering the same witch-hunt in Burma - and all that based on a spectacularly outrageous claim with little to no evidence.

*NOTE: After the publishing of this article, I was informed by persons familiar with the matter that the story indeed originates from a local pool news agency item, while The Nation did their double-checking with Dr. Pornthip and were asked not to name her as the source, the agency went ahead citing her name anyways...!

Reports: Thai authorities sell Rohingya refugees to human traffickers

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2013 Thai authorities have "sold off" ethnic Rohingya migrants who have arrived in Thailand by boat to people smugglers, according to both local and international media.

Last week we reported on the fate of the 74 Rohingya migrants, among them many women and children, that were intercepted by Thai officials on New Year's Day. They were traveling in a flimsy fishing boat for weeks in the Andaman Sea on their way to Malaysia. Near Phuket, the boat was towed on land by Thai authorities since their boat was deemed unsafe. As per usual procedure, the refugees would be deported back to Burma - back to the country where they are fleeing from targeted violence against them that has killed at least 88 people and displaced over 100,000.

However, they never made it across the border. As previously reported, the refugees were put on other boats and sent out to sea again. This has also been 'confirmed' by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) - in fact, the 74 Rohingya have always been in the hands of ISOC, according to sources.

Then, BBC News reported on Monday:

The BBC found that boats were being intercepted by the Thai navy and police, with deals then made to sell the people on to traffickers who transport them south towards Malaysia. (...)

We spoke to one of the brokers involved in the deal. They said that 1.5 million baht (about $50,000, £31,500) had been transferred from Malaysia and paid to officials in Thailand. That amount was confirmed to us by other members of the Rohingya community in Thailand.

The Thai authorities told us they believe there are just a few corrupt officials. But in the border town of Ranong a Thai official closely linked with the Rohingya issue told us that working with the brokers was now regarded as the "natural" solution.

"Burmese refugees sold on by Thai officials", by Jonah Fisher, BBC News, January 21, 2013

The BBC also reported on the horrible conditions these refugees have to endure, as this video report shows. Also, be sure to check the local Phuket Wan's story on the same topic.

On Sunday, the Bangkok Post also reported the alleged involvement of ISOC officers in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees. In this case, over 800 migrants have been found in army-led raids in the southern province on Songkhla, believed to be held captive in camps of human traffickers (we reported).

A high ranking police source involved in the case said the investigation found the trafficking of Rohingya migrants - mostly from Myanmar's [Burma] Rakhine state - to Malaysia via Songkhla had been going on for several years and was under the control of some military officers with ranks from major to colonel. (...)

"Sometimes they even used military trucks to transport these Rohingya migrants," said the police officer. Sometimes local police stopped the trucks to check them. Soon after, they would get a phone call from someone who claimed to be a senior military officer seeking to release the trucks. (...)

Isoc spokesman Ditthaporn Sasisamit said the command has not received information about the issue from police. However it will cooperate with police to take action against the officers. (...) But so far no evidence had emerged to link them to the trafficking.

"Army officers linked to Rohingya smuggling", Bangkok Post, January 20, 2013

Reportedly, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha is also aware of the possible incrimination of army officers in people smuggling and has announced his intentions to "eradicate" the "bad army officers". Whether or not actual consequences will follow his words has yet to be seen.

This follows after the seemingly misplaced remarks of Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn, who slammed the international community for allegedly "not doing enough" to help the Rohingya migrants:

He said while international organisations stressed the need to help the Rohingya, they did not provide enough direct assistance and Thailand was forced to shoulder the burden of looking after them.

"Tanasak demands global help", Bangkok Post, January 19, 2013

What Thanasak seems to ignore is that Thailand does not always allow foreign help:

Thailand’s response to arriving Rohingya asylum seekers contrasts sharply with the policy in Malaysia, where the authorities have routinely allowed the UN refugee agency access to arriving Rohingya. Those recognized by the agency as refugees are released from immigration detention. (...)

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of “nonrefoulement” – not to return anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be at risk.

"Thailand: Don’t Deport Rohingya ‘Boat People’", Human Rights Watch, January 2, 2013

While the UNHCR has been granted access to the 800+ migrants in Songkhla province by the Thai government, no specific date has been set yet.

The media attention on the ethnic Rohingya now shifts from their plight of enduring the weeks at sea to those who have sold them off to the people smugglers.

UPDATED: Thailand moves to deport 800 Rohingya as exodus continues

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 16, 2013 Thailand is moving to deport around 800 Rohingya, underlining the country's continuing policy of refusing Burma's (Myanmar) persecuted ethnic minority asylum status. The refugees were found in an army-led raids on human trafficker camps in the Southern Thai border province of Songkhla last week and are now detained. There are reportedly around 160 children and 30 women among them.

Many witnesses reported inhumane conditions at the trafficker camps, where the refugees received insufficient food and regular beatings. Police have arrested several suspects, including a local mayor.

The Thai Foreign Ministry insisted today that nearly 1,000 Rohingya migrants, arrested last week for illegal entry, will be eventually deported from Thailand.

Sihasak Puangketkaew, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said legal action against the Rohingya ethnic detainees will be on humanitarian grounds while international organisations have been asked to intervene and assist.

"Foreign Minister: Rohingya migrants must leave Thailand", MCOT, January 15, 2013

The exact number of refugees is unclear. The secretary-general of national security says that 790 are in detention, while other sources claim that the number is 857. They are now currently under the detention of Thai authorities where they are being screened and most likely prepared for deportation.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry's permanent secretary has announced that it will cooperate with international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Unicef, to aid the refugees and determine their status. However, as of writing...

“UNHCR has asked the Thai authorities for access to recent irregular boat arrivals and people involved in the raids. We have not been granted it yet,” Vivian Tan, the agency’s spokesperson, told AlertNet on Tuesday. (...)

UNHCR has also urged the Thai government to treat them humanely and “not to send them back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” she added.

(...) UNHCR told AlertNet late Tuesday that while there has been progress in talks with the government, they are still awaiting access to the latest group of Rohingya detainees.

"UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand", AlertNet, January 15, 2013

Additionally, Human Rights Watch's Sunai Phasuk has tweeted on Tuesday evening:

On New Year's Day the Thai Navy intercepted a boat with more than 70 Rohingya migrants (including children as young as 3 years old) near Phuket. The Rohingya, who were bound for Malaysia, were at sea for almost two weeks. The usual procedure by Thai authorities is to "help on" these boats on their treacherous journey from Burma to Malaysia or Indonesia through the Andaman Sea by providing medicine, food and fuel on the condition that no one leaves the boat.

If the boat is washed ashore or, like in this case, deemed too unsafe, the refugees are deported back to Burma. However in this case, amid protests by activists, the Thai authorities instead put these refugees back on another boat(s).

Thailand has been often at the center of controversy in the past concerning their handling of Rohingya refugees. Reports (not in Thai media) of boats being towed out to sea again and set adrift (sometimes removing the engine) put the Thai authorities in a very bad light.

Sectarian violence flared up between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in Burma last year. The clashes, instigated by nationalists, have killed at least 88 and displaced 100,000 more. According to a phone interview with Human Rights Watch, there are at least "one or two boats passing by the Thai coastline every day" during this time of year. In fact, Phuket Wan reports:

NINE boats containing about 1000 Rohingya men, women and children are off the coast in the Phuket region now, maritime authorities said on Monday. Two boats that were being ''helped on'' are now being brought to shore, the authorities said.

"'1000 Rohingya' Off Phuket as Scale of Trafficker Trade is Revealed", Phuket Wan, January 14, 2013

The Thai state usually regards the Rohingya not as persecuted refugees, but rather as illegal economic immigrants, therefore constantly refusing to grant them asylum. Deported Rohingyas are in danger of falling into the hands of people smugglers, who extort an enormous sum of money for transportation to Malaysia and are often forced into labor to pay off their debts.

At the same time, Thailand is facing international pressure as the United States State Department has put the country under close scrutiny over its efforts to combat human trafficking:

Thailand has been on a Tier 2 Watch List status – the second-worst rating – for three consecutive years for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

A downgrade to Tier 3 – the same level with North Korea - could result in non-tariff sanctions being imposed on Thailand.

"UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand", AlertNet, January 15, 2013

That also probably explains why the National Security Council has reportedly requested a "special budget from the government" to deal with the Rohingya migrants and "for Thailand’s image in the global community" (source) - because apparently this is as important for the Thai authorities as tending to those in dire need of help.

UPDATE [January 16, 2013 at 16.30h]:

Thai authorities have granted  the UNHCR access to the migrants. UNHCR spokeswoman Vivan Tan told Siam Voices that this move is "a positive step at the moment." While no specific date has been agreed on yet, the organization is hopeful to make a first early assessment as soon as possible. According to Tan, there's a possibility that not all about 800 persons are all Rohingya, as it has been widely reported, hence why it is important to get this first access in order to "talk who they are, verify themselves and ask them about their background." The agreement in principle only at the moment as details about the extend of assessments are still being worked out with the authorities.

Dawei: Thai-backed mega project in Burma hits a snag

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 11, 2012 Almost a year ago, we have reported about a large industrial estate and port built in Dawei Burma's west coast and Thailand's involvement in the mega-project. Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has, among other crucial factors, outlined in an very detailed essay the Thai stakes in Dawei:

The Burmese government has given a green light to a huge port and industrial estate development in Dawei, for which the Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD) is a major contractor. The first-phase contract for the 10-year project is worth an estimated $8.6 billion. All in all, the entire project could be worth US$58 billion or more. The role of Thailand in Burma's transition is therefore crucial. (...)

For Thailand, Dawei will serve both the national interest and the private sector. There is nothing new in Thailand downplaying democratic development in Burma for the sake of Thai economic benefit. (...) the Thaksin administration brushed aside the issue of political reforms and human rights as he traded with the Burmese junta.In 2010, Abhisit followed the same course in the name of bringing change and prosperity to the impoverished nation. New Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest sister, quickly reached out to Burma after she took office in August. Aung San Suu Kyi even congratulated her.

The Thai government has worked closely with ITD in ensuring Thailand's long-term gains from the Dawei project. (...)

The Thai government has promoted Dawei as part of the national interest, despite Western skepticism about Burma. The West is coming around to accepting that change in Burma may be real, (...)

The Thai private sector will also get rich from Dawei. The project could secure a firm source of revenue for ITD for at least 10 years. (...) More Thai companies are now in negotiation with ITD for their prospective investments in Dawei's subsequent development phase. This will intensify the Thai economic influence in Burma in the long term.

"Dawei Port: Thailand's Megaproject in Burma", by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, in: Global Asia, Winter 2011

However, there are also big environmental concerns surrounding the still quiet fishing village, as this industrial estate is projected to be about 10 times bigger than Map Ta Phut, an industrial estate in Rayong province and infamous for the negative health effects on local residents. With environmental guidelines likely being even less strict than in Thailand, the companies involved are being demanded to carry out impact assessments. No doubt it will change the landscape - politically, economically and literally. Up to 30,000 locals could be affected by this project and could face forced relocation.

But on Tuesday, the Dawei mega-project has surprisingly hit a bump - here's fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade:

Burma’s befuddling rulers have launched another surprise attack on our (somewhat waning) ability to rationalise what is happening in Naypyidaw: four months after the shock suspension of the China-backed Myitsone Dam in the country’s north, the government’s environment minister yesterday announced that a massive, Thai-financed power plant in the south of the country has been scrapped.

The move has prompted (...) immediate questions: first, what has become of the 60-year lease awarded to Ital-Thai to develop the Dawei industrial zone (surely it has been spectacularly breached)? (...)

Like the Myitsone decision, the government has cited public opposition as the key trigger for the Dawei cancellation; also like Myitsone, its newfound fans have been quick to link the scrapping of the plant to the reformist nature of Thein Sein and his cabinet. But while it may have been China’s increasing economic influence in Burma, rather than disquiet among Burmese, that prompted the country’s nationalistic rulers to (temporarily) jump ship on Myitsone, the Dawei decision is slightly more puzzling – the government doesn’t stand to benefit, economically or ideologically, unless it has really developed a conscience and translated that into policy.

"Power plants, dams and mind games in Burma", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, January 10, 2012

According to The Irrawaddy, Burma's Minister for Electrcity Khin Maung Soe says that the government will instead build a smaller power plant with an output of 400 megawatt - just one per cent of the originally projected 40,000 megawatt. However, the Thai stakeholders apparently remain confident that a power plant of the original size will be built, just with a slight modification:

Thai companies remain confident in the future of a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant at Dawei despite Burma abruptly halting construction on Monday after a domestic outcry over the plant's environmental impact.

Italian-Thai Development (ITD) and its partner Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Plc (Ratch) said they had yet to be notified and were satisfied the power plant would proceed, perhaps using natural gas instead.

"Thais in the dark on Dawei plant", Bangkok Post, January 11, 2011

This latest episode in the Dawei mega-project illustrates the still unpredictability of doing business in Burma, with corruption and nepotism still not a thing of the past, while the country's formerly-junta-turned-civillian-government itself self is still figuring out how to push the apparent economical reforms in order to gain legitimacy from the international community. Past and present governments of Thailand have been too eager to to give that very legitimacy, even in times of brutal oppression and international condemnation, and Thailand's biggest corporations are now predicting a new gold rush in Burma. The question remains: for what price?

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany again (*sigh*). He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.