Thailand still detaining Rohingya men

In an immigration centre in Bangkok, 83 Rohingya men still languish in detention in stateless limbo - a symbol of the many unanswered questions about Thailand's treatment of the boatpeople in the year since their plight first emerged.

Hundreds of their fellow Rohingya are dead or presumed so as a result of a controversial and secret Thai army policy of detaining them on isolated islands before towing them out to sea in powerless boats and abandoning them. At least 1,190 were abandoned in the Andaman Sea in such fashion before a series of reports in the South China Morning Post last January forced the Thai leadership to scrap the policy and vow it would never happen again.

The detention of the 83 survivors for a full year is of 'great concern' to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They were originally held in conditions so appalling that two died in custody.

'We are urging the Thai authorities to expedite [solving] issues of their background and nationality so we can find solutions,' said UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey. 'We do occasionally visit them but we can't do much that is meaningful for them at this point.'

Those solutions are far from clear. Thailand is unlikely to allow them to be formally screened in as refugees on their soil, lest it trigger a new flood of Rohingya migrants from neighbouring Myanmar. Before news of Thai mistreatment emerged, the Rohingya set sail every year in their thousands; for now, that tide of boatpeople seems to have halted.

Yet they still face persecution in their home, northern Rakhine state, that is considered as bad as that faced by any people anywhere.

The conservative Muslims struggle to obtain national identity cards, which makes internal movement, legal work and legal marriage difficult. Yet, for example, if Rohingya men are caught in a relationship with a woman out of wedlock, they typically face jail. Rohingya trace their roots back centuries to Rakhine state, yet the government refuses to include them among Myanmar's many ethnic groups.

That persecution means the UNHCR does not want them sent back to Myanmar unless they volunteer to go. Conditions in the Bangkok detention centre depend on the numbers of other migrants inside. While far from perfect, it is still better than the conditions faced by many in earlier detention in Ranong, after their arrival on Thailand's Andaman coast.

They were packed into rooms without natural light and with barely enough space to sit down. Shocked doctors described how the detainees' digestive systems broke down and muscles atrophied before they were sent to Bangkok in August. Two young men died.

Yet the 83 are still considered among the lucky ones. Most were aboard the first Rohingya vessel to arrive in Thai waters after news of the Thai army's policies had drawn the international spotlight. Instead of being secretly abandoned to their fates on the high seas, they were prosecuted in a Thai court and given short prison terms, long since served.

When he disavowed the army's policy of abandonment, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged Rohingya had been 'cast adrift' and promised full investigations. He insisted they were given adequate food and water, something denied by skeletal survivors rescued by the Indian coastguard in the Andaman Islands on December 27, 2008, after 10 days adrift. 'No repeats, no repeats, we don't want to see it,' Abhisit said.

Internal investigations cleared the officials involved and the secretive military unit at the heart of the policy, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), was kept in charge of Rohingya issues.

The Post resubmitted a dossier of evidence to Abhisit at his request. It included photographs of the regional head of ISOC overseeing the processing of Rohingya detainees on the secret prison island of Koh Sai Daeng.

That officer, Colonel Manat Khongpan, remains active and has always denied any wrongdoing or extensive involvement in the abandonment policy - despite being identified as the key player by several people with direct knowledge of the secret scheme.

Last January, he insisted that local Thai villagers had taken it upon themselves to round up the Rohingya, fix their boats or find them berths on other fishing boats heading out to sea. Other local army chiefs confirmed the military funded a programme to get local village chiefs to round up Rohingya as they arrived.

Manat stood by his earlier remarks when contacted recently. 'I did the right thing for the country,' he said, repeatedly. Thai government and Foreign Ministry spokesmen were travelling last week and could not be reached for comment.

'No [Thai officials'] heads rolled ... it meant taking on the military, and the government was not about to do that,' one Asian diplomat familiar with the probes said. 'There was an investigation, the policy was stopped but that was as far as it went.'

Human Rights Watch recently criticised Abhisit - an early rights champion as a democratic politician - for his role in the Rohingya issue. In its 'World Report 2010', it said Abhisit had approved the National Security Council directive allowing the military to intercept Rohingya.

'Prime Minister Abhisit did not honour his pledge to uphold human rights principles and international law in 2009,' said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. 'Getting Thailand back on track as a rights-respecting nation in 2010 is crucial both for the country and the region.'

Myanmar, of course, is seen as the ultimate cause - and solution - of the problem, in the absence of any international will to resettle Rohingya. Regional bodies are aware of the need to solve the problem long-term, but the recalcitrance of Myanmar's ruling generals means diplomatic solutions will not be easy to secure.

Both Myanmar and Bangladesh have apparently held crackdowns to limit or eliminate sailings this winter, while traffickers have been finding new routes by air to get Rohingya to illegal sweatshops in Malaysia.

And if they do start to wash ashore in Thailand again? 'They will be handed to Immigration and the Foreign Ministry for them to handle,' Manat said.

Cast adrift

The number of Rohingya the Thai army abandoned at sea before Bangkok scrapped the policy last year: 1,190


Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva:

As leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit heads a diverse and unelected ruling coalition. He has promised to improve economic conditions, restore democracy and ease the political and social tensions simmering in Thailand since the military coup against prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. He faced international criticism over the Rohingya saga but has vowed there will be 'no repeats'.

Colonel Manat Khongpan:

Manat oversaw the secret Thai army policy of detaining Rohingya boatpeople on Thailand's Andaman coast and towing them out to sea. He remains in his job as a regional head of the shadowy Internal Security Operations Command, which deals with domestic threats such as terrorism and people-smuggling.

Rohingya boatpeople:

Some 83 young men remain in detention in Bangkok, having been held by Thai authorities for more than a year. Instead of taking to the sea in boats this year, some evidence is now emerging that some Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh with fake travel documents arranged by snakeheads.

Myanmar consul general Ye Myint Aung:

Aung appeared to capture his government's hostility towards the Muslim Rohingya when he wrote a letter to the SCMP and his diplomatic colleagues, describing them as 'ugly as ogres'. While his letter sparked outrage, he was promoted soon after and returned to Myanmar to take up a senior political role in the Foreign Ministry.