Thailand: HRW calls for probe into alleged Rohingya shootings

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 14, 2013 New details have emerged about the alleged shooting at Rohingya refugees by Thai navy officers in which as many as 20 people were killed, according to witness reports (we reported). The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch has released a statement calling on the Thai government for an investigation. HRW also published their own findings about the incident:

Survivors told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of February 21, Thai fishermen helped their drifting boat ashore on Surin Island off the coast of Phang Nga province. On that same day, at about 6:30 p.m., a Thai navy patrol boat numbered TOR214 arrived at the island and towed their boat back to the sea. Navy patrol boat TOR214 and the Rohingya boat arrived near a pier in Kuraburi district of Phang Nga province at around 5 a.m. the next morning. According to the survivors and Thai villagers on the shore, navy personnel from the patrol boat began to divide the Rohingya into small groups in the boat and ordered them to get ready to board smaller boats. At that point, the Rohingya became uncertain whether they would be taken to immigration detention on the mainland or be pushed back to the sea. When the first group of 20 Rohingya was put on a smaller boat by the Thai navy, some panicked and jumped overboard.

“Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water.”

"Thailand: Fleeing Rohingya Shot in Sea by Navy", Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2013

This account was based on 4 survivors of this incident, after they have swum to a nearby village and have been sheltered by the local villagers and also hidden from the authorities. These 4 men have now reportedly fled to Malaysia as they fear retributions from Thai authorities. Reportedly, two bodies were found and pulled out of the water with one of them baring a bullet wound in the head. These two have been already been buried at a nearby cemetery. The rest of the 20 men are still missing, but presumed dead.

The whereabouts of the remaining refugees are unknown, as they could have been towed out and left to the sea again on their journey to Malaysia or Indonesia. Or worse, they could be sold off to human traffickers, as recent cases have shown and more accusations by Rohingya refugees have surfaced. This has now also been underlined by witness reports of local villagers.

The Thai authorities are fiercely denying the allegations, pointing the blame back at the Rohingya refugees themselves.

"The navy commander [Adm Surasak Rounroengrom] has insisted that the navy did not kill or shoot at the Rohingya," a navy source told the Bangkok Post. "We feel for them. No humans or sailors can commit such act because the Rohingya people are not our enemy."

Firing on the Rohingya "doesn't even cross our minds," the source said. (...)

The same source said Vice Adm Tharathorn Khachitsuwan, commander of the Third Region Navy, and Rear Adm Weeraphan Sukkon, commander of the Royal Navy Phang Nga Base, both believed the navy was being framed by Rohingya who were angry because the navy prevented them from coming ashore.

(...)  "Those who accuse the navy of hurting or killing the Rohingya should come out and take care of them too. They should not accuse others and not help" to look after the displaced people, the official said.

"Thai navy denies shooting Rohingya refugees", Bangkok Post, March 13, 2013

A spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to contradict with the usual handling of Rohingya boat refugees:

Human Rights Watch has criticized the "push back" policy, saying Thailand is failing to provide the Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law. Thai foreign ministry spokesperson Manasvi Srisodapol denied the existence of such a policy as described by Human Rights Watch and many other organizations.

"Fleeing Rohingya Refugees Fired Upon, Says Rights Group", VOA, March 13, 2013

Compare that to the comments made by Royal Thai Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Surasak Rounroengrom:

"Since the policy is to push them back out to sea, we provide humanitarian aid with food and water, medicine and gas for them to continue their journey. All we do is help them, even fixing their boats [if necessary], before sending them back on their way," Surasak said.

"Navy dismisses reports on Rohingya killings", The Nation, March 14, 2013

On Monday, at an event of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (see a summary here), Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also addressed the issue of the Rohingya refugees in her keynote speech, stating that Thailand is treating them well and "on humanitarian grounds”. Zoe Daniels from the ABC further asked her about the specific shooting incident:

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: In the case of the navies I think we will work on a fair basis and will be fair to everyone under the legal process.

ZOE DANIEL: Talking though about the Thai Navy shooting and killing refugees, could I ask you will you order an investigation into that incident?

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: Okay, first of all I have to say that we don't encourage any violence, to do any harm to anyone. This is our policy and of course that we will have to fair to everyone and we will look and investigate the case.

"Calls for Thai Govt to investigate alleged navy shooting", ABC News, March 13, 2013

The likelihood of an impartial and independent investigation into any matter concerning the authorities' handling of the Rohingya refugees are slim. The military is unwilling let anybody - let alone a civilian body - conduct a probe into this. An internal inquiry by the Internal Security Operations Command into allegations of their officers being involved in human trafficking (we reported) has found no evidence against them, but still has transferred them into a different part of the country.

UPDATE: Shortly after publication of this article, Phuketwan has another story with more witnesses about this incident:

A fisherman told today for the first time of having a gun pointed at him by a military officer in a controversial incident that led to the deaths of an unknown number of boatpeople north of Phuket.

Fisherman Yutdhana Sangtong said today that four other fishermen were in the boat when the gun was pointed at him. They were ordered to leave. ''Go away. These people have been fed already. Get out,'' he says he was told at gunpoint.

Later, he heard a volley of gunshots, In the days that followed, Khun Yutdhana says, he found three bodies in the water nearby. Other fishermen around the district reported finding more bodies along the coast, around the village of Hinlad.

"Two Accounts of the Boatpeople 'Shooting' Leave Questions to Answer", Phuketwan, March 14, 2013

Thailand in 2012 - Some personal thoughts (Part 2)

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2012 This is the second and final part of the Siam Voices year-in-review. Yesterday in part 1, we looked at the year of prime minister's government, that of the opposition and the prevailing impunity over the 2010 crackdown.

Lese majeste: Cowardice in the face of first victim

One topic we expected to continue to play a role in 2012 is the draconian lèse majesté law and its unjust application to crack down on alleged dissent voices. And in many ways - despite the release of Thai-American Joe Gordon and an 'only' suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting monarchy-insulting web comments quickly enough - it unfortunately still made headlines for the wrong reasons.

The death of Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul marked what could be argued the first victim of lèse majesté. The 64-year-old retiree was serving a 20 year sentence for allegedly sending four defamatory text messages to the personal secretary of Abhisit Vejjajiva (despite inconclusive evidence). Having repeatedly being denied bail and suffering bad health, Akong died in detention on May 8. Obviously, his death sparked universal condemnation against the law - almost: Thailand politicians showed little sympathy and interest to do something about the arbitrary law, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra insisting not to do anything to change Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Up until this point, the heated discussion about how to amend or if not abolish the law altogether was ongoing. Leading this debate was the Nitirat group, a collective of reformist law academics from Thammasat University, amidst considerable uproar. And it was that university that had a reputation for being one of the more liberal institutions in this country that was struggling and battling with itself, which led to one of the most astonishing sights of this year: of all people, journalism students (!) were seen protesting against Nitirat and the reform of the lèse majesté law by saying “Don’t use knowledge to distort morality!”

The chances that the law will be somehow changed (or even just remotely touched by politicians) remain slim as two incidents have shown that it is untouchable: the Constitutional Court rejected a petition by Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Ekachai Hongkangwan, both currently on trial for lèse majesté, as it does not see the constitutional right to free speech being violated by Article 112 of the Criminal Code. In another story, a bill petition proposing to amend the law - signed by over 30,000 - was dismissed by the speaker of the parliament.

Meanwhile earlier this week, a former stockbroker has been sentenced to four years in prison under the equally flawed Computer Crimes Act for spreading "false information".

Emerging neighbors: Thailand's geo-political opportunities and blunders

This past year showed the rapid rise of neighboring Myanmar, as the country carefully progresses economically and politically - despite the unmasking of the ugly side of the Burmese pro-democracy movement regarding the genocide against the Rohingya - and other countries of course are in a gold rush mood, as they see new investment opportunities and also to grow their regional influence.

Thailand was one of the few countries that already did business with its neighbor before the change and the upcoming industrial area and deep sea port in Dawei on Myanmar's west coast is the biggest of them. But we reported at the beginning of this year that the mega-project ran into some problems and also caused the Thai government to reconsider their commitment. However, after a visit by Prime Minister Yingluck to Myanmar it seems to be on track again.

A different story shows how Thailand has lost some regional credibility: When NASA planned to use the Thai naval airbase in U-Tapao for atmospheric research study, the opposition Democrat Party drummed up nationalistic outrage and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists came out crawling again - conveniently forgetting that...

Officials have noted that the Democrats, now opposed to the NASA initiative, approved the program while in power in 2010 and that it would not entail the use of military aircraft.

"Baseless controversy over Thailand's U-Tapao", Asia Times One, June 22, 2012

It was petty domestic political squabbles that eventually led the annoyed NASA to kill the project and gave Thailand a huge slap to the face geo-politically for not being able to sort itself out.

While the prime minister was busy traveling the world this year to bolster economical ties (read our exclusive report on her visit to Germany and France here), Thailand needs to take charge in the ASEAN region (and without looking down on its neighbors), if it doesn't want to loose relevancy.

The exploits of "ThaiMiniCult" in 2012: Mammophobia!

Of course it wouldn't be Siam Voices if we wouldn't monitor the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thai”-ness - or in short "ThaiMiniCult". And while this year they have been noticeably less outraged in quantity, there were still instances when we could only shake our heads.

There was for example the ThaiMiniCult that was rumored (and thank god it was only a rumor) to order that "100 per cent males" shouldn't play transgender roles on TV. Or some arbitrary survey that blames Facebook for teen pregnancies, only to find out that it was lazy journalism that caused that headline, while the real problem of nearly non-existing sexual education is being swept under the carpet. Or the MP that was caught looking up some naughty pictures on his phone in parliament.

But probably the most noticeable media outrage (and also the most-clicked Siam Voices story of 2012) was the 'controversy' over the literally bare-breasted painting performance on the TV show "Thailand's Got Talent" that caused one of the judges to throw a sanctimonious tantrum on national TV and a moral witch-hunt. In the end, it turns out that the producers have "hired" her for a staged controversy. However, given how Thais reacted (or claimed to react) to this brouhaha, it was in many ways revealing.

What else happened this year? (in no particular order)

- The four-part series on Thai Education Failures by our regular Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala is a must-read! Be it ridiculous O-Net questions, questionable standardization, our poor international performance and lacking English proficiencies - our archaic education system is in dire need of change! And what does the Pheu Thai government do? Give away free tablets...!

- A rape case in Krabi, the disgusting denial by the Thai tourism minister in order to 'protect' the image and a father's creative plea for justice.

- Thais being outraged by five tourist douchebags cutting down a tree while most population doesn't give a damn about their own environmental lifestyle and willingly plastic-bags everything...!

- Thais being outraged at Lady Gaga for tweeting the intention of buying a fake Rolex while most of the population otherwise willingly ignores the countless counterfeit markets, and after campaigns by outraged religious groups in the Philippines and Indonesia to ban her concerts, looking rather silly and childish...!

- The Thai senator who accidentally shot his wife...or secretary...or cousin...with an uzi...or not...!

- In upside-down world news this year: The reactionary right-wing ASTV/Manager (media outlet of the anti-democratic yellow shirts) accuses the blatantly anti-Thaksin The Nation (an attempt of a newspaper) of being pro-Thaksin - mind blown!

- "Double, double toil and trouble;" - Thailand's movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" gets banned, but not for the depiction of regicide, rather for the depiction of another "Dear Leader" and the disparagement of his followers.

- Three Iranian terrorists literally blowing up their cover on Valentine's Day in the middle of Bangkok after a warning by the United States Embassy and the immediate arrest of a Hezbollah suspect a month before that and the tweeting motorcycle taxi driver that got the scoop of his lifetime. And deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as the spiritual successor of the former Iraqi information minister by saying that there's "absolutely no terrorism" in the kingdom.

- Deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as our new regular contributor to the "Tongue-Thai’ed!"-segments and coming up with the most creative name for the new command center in the South!

- The tsunami scare in April and the failure of Thai TV to inform the public because of a royal cremation ceremony.

- The Dhammakāya Movement's newest revelation: the afterlife of Apple's Steve Jobs...!

- The visit of US President Barack Obama to Thailand, and his meeting with Yingluck Shinwatra and half of the internet not able to be mature about it.

- The Bangkok Futsal Arena fiasco, as the city has failed to construct a purposed-built arena in time for FIFA Futsal World Cup and thus embarrassing themselves on a world stage.

- The return of the fraudulent bomb-sniffing device also known as the GT200, essentially a horrendously overpriced empty plastic shell with a dowsing rod. It's ineffectiveness has been proven since 2010, but it has emerged that the bogus device is still in use by the armed forces for the simple reason that there's "no alternative" but to keep on using it until there's a replacement, while soldiers are unnecessarily risking their lives more than they should because of this fraud, whose UK manufacturer has been charged this year.

- Thailand has FINALLY reached the early 21st century with the arrival of real 3G network coverage after an eternal farce and one last court decision - while neighboring Laos is preparing for 4G already...!

- And last, but not least: The still undisputed, most coherent article by The Nation - EVER!

I’d like to thank my co-writers and editors at Siam Voices and Asian Correspondent for their contributions and work this year, and YOU, the readers, for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets! Here’s to an eventful, exciting 2013 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss and report for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!

Foreigners at the Red Shirt Protest

The Nation ran an article today asking a few (western) foreigners participating in the red shirt protests.

An American appeared on the stage yesterday, despite the government's enforcement of the emergency decree. (...)

While on stage, he addressed the crowd in English, saying that the United States took a long time to establish democracy. "What you're doing is amazing and I hope you achieve it," he said.

"This is becoming a people's movement. The country has been divided in the last month and I am worried about the direction it is heading in," said Frank Klose, a German who has been living in Thailand for the past 20 years.

Klose, a resident of Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani, added that it was his third time at the protests and he was hoping a dissolution of Parliament would help resolve the current chasm.

However, he admitted he was not too knowledgeable about Thai politics, and mainly came in support of his Thai wife, who is a strong activist.

A desire to see the dissolution of Parliament was shared by other foreigners present. (...)

"I am here to support freedom of speech, freedom of protest and corruption free elections. We should have a democracy without interference like in the US," added the dual American and Canadian citizen, who has been living in Bangkok for 15 years and asked to remain anonymous.

"Foreigners joining the rally", by PierLuc Gagnon, The Nation, April 9, 2010

Least to say that these soundbites do in no way represent the whole movement and it is probably impossible to pick out all westerners in the crowd. But I can see the red shirts trying to gain some credibility endorsement by the mere presence of western foreigners at the rally site (like with everything gains some prestige with a token farang standing at hand, right?) - it can't hurt.

In comparison The Irrawaddy has written back in early March that the government has warned Thai employers to bring migrant workers to the red shirt protest.

Thailand's Ministry of Labor warned Thai employers not to bring any migrant workers to join ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra's supporters, who are scheduled to launch a major anti-government protest in Bangkok this weekend.

The warning was made by Phaitoon Kaewthong, Thailand's minister of labor, after reports circulated suggesting that Thaksin supporters known as Redshirts will bring laborers including foreign migrant workers to join the Redshirt protest, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Labor on Monday.

In a written statement sent to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Andy Hall, director of the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation's migrant justice program said: “If migrants were to attend this red-shirt rally, it would surely be because they were forced to attend by their employers, as we saw with the previous red and yellow shirt rallies in Thailand.”

“If it is not enough to exploit migrants economically and physically, now they are being exploited politically by both sides of the political conflict,” said Hall.

"No Migrants at Redshirt Rally", by Saw Yan Naing, The Irrawaddy, March 8, 2010

Bangkok Pundit has blogged about this issue as well, where migrant workers and their Thai employers were threatened with hefty fines, and already back in November 2009, citing deputy prime minister Suthep Thuagsuban's rationale on why foreigners should not protest with the red shirts.

Well, so says Deputy Prime Minister Suthep in an interview with Matichon which BP has summarized below:

Suthep stated that there were reports of others being brought in to protest against Abhisit on his trip to Chiang Mai on November 28. Suthep warns the protest letters not to allow others who are not Thais to protest because it is not possible to communicate with such people* (อย่าปล่อยให้กลุ่มผู้ชุมนุมที่ไม่ใช่คนไทยมาร่วมชุมนุม เพราะพูดกันไม่รู้เรื่อง) and they cannot be controlled (และไม่สามารถควบคุมได้). They may also create problems (คนพวกนี้อาจจะเข้ามาสร้างปัญหา).

Suthep also wanted to pass a message onto non-Thais that peaceful protests under the constitution was limited to Thais only. Therefore, if a foreigner protests, they have broken the law.

*edited this slightly.

"Non-Thais to protest with the reds", Bangkok Pundit, November 23, 2009

Suthep definitely had Burmese, Lao, Cambodian or any other Asian migrant workers in mind when telling foreigners not to meddle with Thai politics (since we can take care of ourselves very well, right?). So what about the farang red shirts? Is it also hard to communicate with them? And do these regulations apply to them and legal actions will be taken against them as well?

Further reading: