PHUKET: A long-awaited report from the Reuters news agency confirms today that thousands of Rohingya boatpeople are being transited through Thailand in a covert and abusive smuggling operation.
The report from three countries adds substance to Tuesday’s Phuketwan world exclusive, revealing claims that boatpeople are dying daily in secret camps in Thailand, with women and children subjected to abuse in appalling conditions.
Like a Phuketwan correspondent, journalists from Reuters clambered through rough jungle, reputedly patrolled by armed guards, to confirm the existence of at least one camp in southern Thailand.
It’s likely that the two accounts of ”tropical gulags” will trigger consequences for the Thai officials heavily involved in the trafficking, and for Thailand when the US Trafficking in Persons report reappraises Thailand’s ranking next year.
Just days ago we talked to one escaper near the village of Baan Chalung who told us of 16 deaths in a secret camp in 14 days, adding: ”Rohingya die every day.”
Phuketwan also carried out an operation to observe the suspicious treatment of refugees by Immigration officers in the Thai-Burma border port of Ranong in October.
From Ranong, based on our investigations, we believe Immigration officers pretend to transfer hundreds of refugees back to Burma but secretly ship them to traffickers.
It is not clear where the money goes.
Reuters takes the allegations today to a number of officials in Thailand who do not deny that a secret process is in place.
Back in 2009, Phuketwan journalists, working with the South China Morning Post newspaper, exposed the covert ”pushbacks” of Rohingya at sea in which hundreds died, bringing that secret and inhumane process to an end.
The new secret process being carried out by Thai officials in 2013 remains just as inhumane, with claims of torture, rape, beatings and killings now adding to the horror.
Corpses, we believe, are disposed of in the jungle.
Alarmingly, many Thai organisations – including human rights advocacy groups – have been complicit in remaining silent about what is happening, out of misplaced concern for Thailand’s international reputation.
Colonel Thanakrit Promdonchart, Superintendent of the Padang Besar Immigration office, which is near at least four secret camps, told us yesterday: ”All Rohingya in cells in Padang Besar have been transferred to Ranong Immigration. We have to follow the policy of the Government. Ask the Government in Bangkok for details.”
We next telephoned Colonel Eakkorn Bhudsasabordin, Superintendent of Ranong Immigration, who told us: ”About the Rohingya, my commander in Bangkok says we are not permitted to provide information to the media because this is an issue of national stability. My apologies.”
Reuters, covering the issue as only an international news organisation can, was given more illuminating answers in its long investigation.
Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s equivalent of the US FBI, said: ”We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand, but we are not investigating this issue.”
Major General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok admitted there was an unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Burma (Myanmar). ”In the past, and I stress in the past, there may have been cases of officials taking payments for handing over migrants to boats,” he said. ”I am not ruling it out, but I don’t know of any specific cases recently.”
Back in October, Colonel Nattasit Maksuwan, the Deputy Chief of the Internal Security Operations Command in Satun province – ISOC protects Thailand’s borders – told Phuketwan: ”Your question concerns Immigration, so it’s best to talk to them. I understand they are uncomfortable right now.
”The issue is, why do we have to keep the Rohingya in Thailand? Holding them costs nearly three million baht every month.
”There is no reason to keep them. We might as well let them go to Malaysia. We can give them food and water and help them to get there.”
He was speaking about the remainder of the 2200 Rohingya being held in ”protective custody” after being arrested in traffickers’ camps or at sea from January to March.
Those ”rescued” Rohingya have now mostly disappeared, into the arms of traffickers. His comment, we suspect, also applies to the thousands of Rohingya now fleeing Burma by boat, seeking to reach Malaysia, but in many cases being intercepted by the Thai military.
Colonel Kan Thamakasem, the Superintendent of Immigration in Songkhla province, and Colonel Banpot Kittiveera, Deputy in Songkhla Immigration, deferred questions about Rohingya to Bangkok.
There will be more questions than ever before being asked today in Bangkok about the Rohingya in Thailand.