Rohingyan Muslims are an ethnic group who practice Islam and speak a language related Bengali. The origin of this group of people is disputed with some saying they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine in Myanmar while others contend they are migrants who came from Bengal, latterly Bangladesh, to Burma (Myanmar) during the period of British colonial rule. According to the United Nations, Rohingyans are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Many Rohingyans have fled Myanmar to refugee camps in Bangladesh and to areas along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Thai forces accused of shooting fleeing Rohingya refugees off Phuket
Up to 15 people seeking to escape persecution in Myanmar allegedly shot dead by military during botched attempt to put them aboard two vessels
Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison in Phuket
Thai security forces opened fire on defenceless Rohingya refugees near the holiday island of Phuket, killing at least two and as many as 15, according to three survivors and Thai villagers who were sheltering them.
The alleged killings, which are said to have occurred on February 22, came during an attempt by the military to transfer about 20 refugees from the boat on which they arrived from Myanmar with more than 100 others, to a smaller vessel.
When some feared they would be separated from family members, they jumped into the water and the military opened fire, said the witnesses.
Rohingya Habumara, 20, Rerfik, 25, and Jamar, 16, said yesterday that they swam for their lives, along with one other Rohingya, when the shooting broke out before dawn. They are currently being sheltered by villagers.
Two fresh graves, said to contain Rohingya, were seen by the South China Morning Post.
The survivors said they believed that the killers, who wore camouflage uniforms, 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 the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a Thai Army unit.
"There was a shot fired into the air when we decided not to move,'' Rerfik said. "And so we jumped. That's when they opened fire on us, in the water.''
Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khajitsuwan, the Commander of Thai Navy Three, which patrols the Andaman coast, declined to comment yesterday.
Rerfik said that their boat, which had run out of fuel on its journey from Myanmar, was intercepted by local Thai fishermen on February 21.
The fishermen helped them ashore at a beach on Surin island, a popular destination for international tourists on dive boat and snorkelling excursions.
"Other local people brought us food and water," Rerfik said, and a meal was cooked on the beach for the exhausted boatpeople.
At 6.30pm that day, a military boat arrived at the beach. A video shot by villagers and seen by the South China Morning Post shows the Rohingya craft being towed close to shore by a vessel with the hull designation TOR214 - listed as a Thai Navy fast patrol boat.
"The villagers told us not to worry. We were told that they were just going to transfer us safely to the mainland," Rerfik said. But at 5.30am the next day, as the military attempted to put some Rohingya on board their original vessel and about 20 into a smaller one lying nearby offshore, the shooting broke out.
"We all heard the gunshots,'' said a local woman who had been waiting by the pier. "A little bit later, a fisherman pulled Rerfik from the water. During the day, the others were found and rescued."
Two bodies with gunshot wounds were pulled from the water and buried, with fishermen telling villagers they had seen more bodies in the water. As many as 15 people may have died.
The residents of the village north of Phuket are now sheltering the four survivors, as well as a fifth Rohingya who arrived on an earlier boat. Soldiers descended on the village and searched the area for two days after the incident, but the survivors were kept hidden.
The fate of the other 100-plus Rohingya is not known, after they were towed away by the military vessel. The Thai military has previously been accused of co-operating with people smugglers by handing over to them boatpeople who are then sold as bonded labourers.
Habumara said: "Most of us were hoping to reach Malaysia, but my aim is to go on from there to Australia. We are not sure what will happen to us now."
Thailand has been swamped this winter by Rohingya, who are fleeing persecution and deprivation in their native Myanmar and border areas in Bangladesh. Thousands have set sail to escape a recent outbreak of violence targeting their communities.
Because the Rohingya are not recognised as citizens by Myanmar, they cannot be legally deported there. Hundreds have been languishing in detention for years in Thailand, which does not allow the United Nations access to them so they can be assessed for refugee status.
In 2009, ISOC was revealed to have secretly adopted a policy of towing Rohingya out to sea in powerless boats and casting them adrift. Hundreds died as a result and the policy was disavowed by then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Since then, the Thai military has adopted a policy of "helping on" Rohingya boats that are intercepted at sea, supplying them with food, water and fuel on condition that they do not come ashore in Thailand.