Thais accused of abusing more Rohingya
It has been more than two years since the Thai government publicly repudiated its military's deadly policy of casting adrift Muslim Rohingya boatpeople - a clandestine abuse that cost hundreds of lives and earned international condemnation when it was exposed.
But in a series of interviews, Rohingya rescued in Indian waters have accused the Thai military of secretly reviving the policy this year.
They have given detailed accounts of how they were abused by Thai soldiers before being towed out to sea in unpowered boats and set adrift, in a near-exact replay of the policy that former prime minister Abhisit Vejajiva pledged would never occur again.
'After torturing us in Thailand for five days, the Thai army handed us over to the Thai navy. The navy soldiers loaded us on to our boat on January 18 and we found that the engine was missing. For more than two days our boat was towed by the navy boat until we were hundreds of miles away from the Thai coast,' said Sheikh Montaz, a Rohingya now in Indian detention.
Montaz is among 91 Rohingya who were rescued by Indian authorities on February 5. They are now being held in a jail at Port Blair in the remote Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The men say they were abandoned with only 100 litres of water, and that only kind weather - showers and overcast skies - kept them alive.
Sohail Ali, 24, was on the same boat as Montaz. He also tells a tale of secret detention and abuse.
'The Thai navy caught us and handed us over to another group of soldiers who appeared to be from the Thai army. We were detained for five days at the bottom of a hill in Thailand.
'The soldiers beat us badly with wooden batons. They forced us to go nude and stay in seawater for more than five hours every day,' Ali said.
'Using cigarette lighters, the Thai soldiers burned the beards of some of us.'
It is unclear whether the Rohingyas' identification of the different branches of the Thai military was accurate, since the Thai army sometimes uses boats.
In January 2009, the South China Morning Post revealed that the Thai army had been towing Rohingya out to sea in unpowered boats and setting them adrift with scant supplies. Hundreds died as a result.
After the Thai military and government initially denied the abuse, Abhisit admitted that there had been attempts to 'let these people drift to other shores'. He pledged that there would be 'no repeats, no repeats'.
But if the men languishing at Port Blair are to be believed, that pledge has not been kept.
The Thai Foreign Ministry, now under the control of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, last week issued a statement denying that Thai authorities had recently cast any Rohingya adrift. The statement said that a boatload of 91 Rohingya arrived in Thai waters in late January but said they were deported to Myanmar at the border in Ranong province the same month.
'It must be emphasised that this action was in line with their wish,' the statement said. The ministry said it could not confirm whether the 91 Rohingya rescued in the Andamans were the same people.
'Thai authorities have no knowledge as to how this group of people may have travelled onwards after they departed from Thai territory,' the statement said.
Nevertheless, the arrival of the 91 Rohingya in Indian waters in a drifting boat drew immediate comparisons with the situation in 2009, and Indian authorities reported that the men had accused the Thai military of abuses.
In a series of telephone interviews with the Post, the men gave detailed accounts of their alleged treatment by Thai authorities, repeating their claim that they were abandoned at sea.
They said their boat set out on January 2 from Maheshkhali in Bangladesh, and that on January 13 they were intercepted by the Thai navy off the coast near Phuket. They said the group was held in detention for five days, before being towed far out to sea.
'We were given around 250kg of rice, 5kg of dry fish and some vegetables, and some packets of charcoal when we were left at sea,' said Montaz, 38, who claimed to be a resident of Satkania village in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
'They gave us only about 100 litres of water. We cried for more water. They did not care.
'We had no matches to light our oven. We just kept praying to Allah to keep us alive.'
Kabir Ahammad, 25, was also on the abandoned boat.
'We began paddling with the hope of reaching any land or country,' Ahammad said.
'Each among us drank just a small gulp of water to keep our throats moist. Some among us just kept chewing rice grain and raw vegetable leaves,' he said.
'After two days we became so weak physically that we stopped paddling.'
Ali said that after two or three days he thought the men were doomed to die of hunger and thirst.
'But we were very lucky. The sky remained mostly cloudy and it rained occasionally,' said Ali, who claims to be a resident of another village in Cox's Bazar.
After more than two weeks adrift, the men were picked up by the Indian coastguard and taken to Port Blair. They joined 190 other Rohingya boatpeople who have been languishing in detention since early 2009, after they too were cast adrift by Thais in uniform.
Port Blair police Superintendent S.B.S. Tyagi said that more than 80 per cent of the 281 boatpeople now in his custody claim they are citizens or residents of Bangladesh. The rest have claimed Myanmese citizenship.
'We want all of the men to return to their homes as soon as possible. They are not criminals,' Tyagi said.
Many Rohingya may be reluctant to say that they are from Myanmar because of that country's long history of persecuting their ilk, preferring instead to claim Bangladeshi residency.
In any case, Myanmar has long refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as citizens. Bangladeshi officials said they would take back all proven Bangladeshi nationals and permanent residents as soon as possible.
Nazibur Rahman, of the Bangladeshi high commission in New Delhi, said: 'Our internal inquiries into the claims of the men, that they are from Bangladesh, is being processed. All with genuine claims will return to Bangladesh as soon as our investigation is complete.'
But the men who were rescued in February fear they will have a long wait.
'Those who were rescued 21/2 years ago are still here. Maybe we have to wait for years more before we can return to our home,' Ali said.