Concerns grow for a group of Rohingya boatpeople who have disappeared from a village where they were being sheltered north of Phuket, after claiming last week that they saw Thai troops shooting at other refugees.
Four survivors of the February 22 incident, along with a fifth Rohingya who arrived earlier, went missing on Sunday night, said sympathetic villagers who had been hiding the men.
"Last night the five men said they were going to the mosque to watch television about 9pm," said a villager yesterday.
"We haven't seen them since. We are deeply concerned and want to know where they are. Local police say they have no knowledge of the men, or where they might be."
The four survivors were among about 130 refugees aboard a Rohingya boat that arrived at Surin Island from Myanmar on February 21. A Thai Navy patrol boat arrived on the scene soon after, with a video taken by the villagers showing the patrol boat towing the Rohingya boat near shore. Before dawn the next day, the survivors said, troops tried to separate about 20 of the boatpeople on to a second boat.
When some resisted leaving their families and friends, a shot was fired into the air, the Rohingya said. "And so we jumped," said a man named Refrik. "That's when they opened fire on us, in the water."
The residents of the village north of Phuket, who said they heard gunshots, told the South China Morning Post they recovered two bodies from the water and buried them nearby, showing reporters the graves.
Australian broadcaster ABC reported the same account of the deaths on Friday.
But the Thai navy's regional commander, Tharathorn Khachitsuwan, denied the SCMP's report, according to the Bangkok Post, although that report on Friday carried no explanation of the presence of Thai patrol boat 214 in the video. Nor did it describe which aspects of the survivors' account was in dispute.
In a report carried by the Phuket News yesterday, local MP Kantawan Tanthien said that two Rohingya had died in the incident, during which members of the Thai navy had opened fire.
But she claimed that autopsies had been carried out and proved the dead men had drowned. The shooting had only been intended "to drive them out of Thai waters".
Village fishermen told the SCMP last week that they saw other bodies in the water.
The four Rohingya survivors said last week that up to 15 may have died in the incident. The whereabouts of the 100-plus survivors towed away on February 22 is not known.
Thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar have arrived in Thai waters this winter.
The Thai military's policy is to "help on" boatloads of Rohingya to other countries, providing them with fuel, water and food.