Lai Seng Sin/AP
A young Burmese refugee wears a headband which reads "Refugee" during a
demonstration outside the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Burmese Refugees, Allegedly Abandoned by Thailand, Arrive in Indonesia

February 04, 2009 12:26 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Indonesian navy has found an engineless boat carrying 194 men who claim that they are Rohingya refugees from Burma sent out to sea by Thai police.

Indonesian Navy Intercepts Raft of Refugees

The 12-meter boat was first discovered by local fishermen on Monday off the coast of Sumatra, and is the second group of suspected Burmese refugees to arrive in the country in recent weeks.

The passengers say that they spent about three weeks at sea, with dwindling supplies of food and water, and that they are part of a group of 1,000 Rohingya who were sent out to sea by Thai security in January. About 50 men have been hospitalized for dehydration and starvation, and some died during the journey.

Although in the past Indonesian authorities have said that the Burmese refugees will be deported, Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told Voice of America, “Our priority at this stage is to provide them with humanitarian assistance.” Faizasyah says that a preliminary investigation will begin soon, and each case will be assessed on an individual basis.
 “We still don’t know the details [of] how they got here,” Faizasyah said to the Los Angeles Times.

One of the men, 37-year-old Rahmat bin Mohammad Daud Yulha, told Reuters on Tuesday that he had been imprisoned in Myanmar for praying in a mosque before escaping to Thailand to find work, where he says that he and many other refugees were gathered, beaten and sent out to sea.

“I was caught and detained for three months. They beat me every day. Every day [I] only drunk a gulp of water,” said Yullha to Reuters. “I beg to stay in Indonesia. I want to bring my kids and wife. Instead of going back to Burma, I’d rather be shot in Indonesia. I want to die in the hands of the Muslims,” he said.

The Bangkok Post reports that Burma, Bangladesh, and Thailand have classified the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and are refusing them sanctuary.

On Wednesday, Burmese ambassador to Thailand Daw Aye Aye Mu said that the 200,000 some Rohingya, who were brought to the country during its colonial period, are not Burmese citizens, and that Burma has allowed them to stay on humanitarian grounds.

Previously, in response to outrage from human rights activists, Thai officials said they were investigating reports about refugees from Burma being sent out to sea.

The BBC reported that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with human rights officials about Thailand's policy toward Rohingya refugees who wash up on Thai shores.

It has been reported by various media that the Thai government, after detaining the refugees on a remote island, have sent more than 1,000 Rohingya back to sea since December, some in boats without engines and no navigational equipment; and it was estimated in January that more than 500 individuals have died so far as a result. The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim, stateless minority group from Western Burma and Bangladesh, have been fleeing by boat in large numbers to Thailand and Malaysia.

Indian officials say that they have intercepted hundreds of refugees, mostly Rohingyas and some Bangladeshis, who have arrived on their shores, and said that the number of arrivals was “unprecedented.”

Vejjajiva’s meeting with human rights officials was prompted by a chorus of concern by human rights groups such as Refugees International, which issued a statement saying that the Thai government “should instruct its Army to desist” from its policy on the Rohingya.

“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” Refugee International Advocate Sean Garcia said in the statement. “It should be engaging the Burmese government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem these flows. The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent—it just jeopardizes lives.”

According to the agency, the Rohingya are “subject to arrest and abuse” upon their return to Burma, where they are not recognized as citizens. There are about 800,000 Rohingya remaining in western Burma, where 200,000 of them live in refugee camps near the country’s border with Bangladesh.

“Stateless and unwanted, they are one of the world’s most forgotten people,” reports Time magazine.

Background: Thailand’s human rights record

Thailand has long been a refuge for a significant population of Burmese refugees and migrants, and incidents involving their abuse have surfaced in the past.

In April of last year, 37 Burmese migrant women and 17 men suffocated to death in a truck while traveling in southern Thailand. The group Human Rights Watch said at the time that the incident was a “somber wake-up call that should prompt Thai authorities to end discriminatory policies and improve protection for migrants.”

In June, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees noted that more than 30,000 Burmese refugees who had been residing in refugee camps in Thailand, some for decades, had been resettled to other countries. Most were sent to the United States, to cities such as Milwaukee, Denver, Syracuse and Minneapolis.

Related Topics: Thailand


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