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.
Villagers decry 'slaughter' of Rohingya as Thai PM vows inquiry
Fishermen say they saw up to 20 bodies floating in the water, near where Rohingya refugees claim the military opened fire on their group
Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison in Phuket
More damning evidence has emerged of what villagers describe as the "slaughter" of Rohingya refugees by members of the Thai military near the holiday island of Phuket, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pledging to investigate the incident.
A fisherman said he and others saw 15 to 20 corpses floating off the coast close to Hinlad village, near the port of Kuraburi, where four Rohingya survivors and villagers say shootings took place on February 22.
The four survivors, who were among about 130 boat people who arrived in the area from Myanmar on February 21, said last week that the shooting occurred as members of the Thai military tried to separate the refugees between two boats.
Some Rohingya refused. When the troops fired a warning shot, about 20 jumped overboard. The troops then opened fire on those in the water, survivors and villagers claimed.
"I saw three bodies, one of the bodies was a woman," fisherman Yutdana Sangtong said yesterday. "But my friends on the other side of the bay said they saw about 15 to 20 bodies all together."
Sangtong said a friend described the bodies as being in a decomposed state. He believes the currents have since carried the dead out to sea.
Red Cross Rescue Service leader Manat Aree said that he recovered two bloated bodies from the area on February 26 and 27, after being told their location by fishermen.
The South China Morning Post saw photographs of the two male corpses, one of which clearly bore a wound to the head.
"We would have liked to fetch the other bodies but we could not because we had no money for fuel for our boat," Manat said.
The bodies were taken to Kuraburi hospital, then reclaimed by villagers for a swift burial according to Muslim custom. Villagers showed the graves to reporters.
Hinlad's deputy chief Aduwat Ahamad works in a paramilitary role for Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command, which oversees border security and has been linked to previous mistreatment of the Rohingya.
"In the past, we closed one eye to the people-trafficking that has been going on in secret all along the coast. But I cannot stay silent with the deaths of innocent Muslims. My heart is broken by this slaughter," he said.
Aduwat was among eight villagers who support the account of the incident provided by the four Rohingya who made it to shore. They said a military patrol boat arrived on the scene soon after the refugee boat arrived and towed the Rohingya vessel. The next morning, villagers reported hearing gunfire.
A video shot by locals shows the Rohingya boat under tow by a patrol boat with the hull designation 214.
The four survivors disappeared at the weekend from the village where they were being sheltered. They have since telephoned their former protectors in Hinlad to say they are safe and in Malaysia.
The village imam, Alit Damchor, said many Rohingya had come ashore around the Kuraburi district because word had spread that people there were tolerant and generous. Hinlad and other villages nearby are predominantly Muslim.
"Our direction and the government's direction are totally different," Alit said. "Our concept of how to treat the Rohingya is also very different."
The Thai navy has denied reports of the February 22 incident, without elaborating. However, on Monday night Yingluck pledged to investigate.
"Our government has a policy to take care of the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds, so they won't be pushed back," she said. "We will investigate this."
In a statement issued yesterday, US-based Human Rights Watch said the Thai navy had shot at the Rohingya and caused at least two deaths. The group called for an immediate government investigation.
"Rohingya fleeing Burma should be given protection, not shot at," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. "The Thai government should urgently investigate why sailors opened fire on boat people helpless in the sea, and prosecute all those found responsible."
The rights group also called on Thai authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the remaining 100-plus Rohingya, who it said were last seen in navy custody.
Thai authorities have adopted a policy of "helping on" Rohingya boats which are apprehended in Thai waters, providing them with fuel, food and water on condition they do not land in Thailand. Thai security forces also co-ordinated a secret policy of towing the Rohingya out to sea in unpowered boats and casting them adrift.
Hundreds died in 2008 and 2009 before the policy was exposed and repudiated.