Thu 29 Jan 2009
Filed under: News,Regional
Sobbing in an Indonesian hospital, a Rohingya migrant from Myanmar said Thursday he faced certain death if forced home, piling more pressure on countries in the region to treat the Muslim minority as refugees.
“We have heard we’d be sent back to Myanmar,” Noor Mohammad, one of a group of Rohingya who washed up off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province three weeks ago, told Al Jazeera English Television.
“In that case, we will ask the Indonesians to kill us. Better we die in the hands of Muslims,” he added. “If we go back, we’ll definitely be killed.”
His testimony shines a harsh light on the plight of the former Burma’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya, and the Thai military’s handling of the hundreds who flee in rickety wooden boats every year in search of better lives.
The Thai army has admitted to towing hundreds far out to sea before cutting them adrift, but has insisted they had adequate food and water and denied persistent reports the boats’ engines were sabotaged.
Of 1,000 Rohingya given such treatment since early December, 550 are feared to have drowned.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has made much of his respect for human rights in his six weeks in office, has also tried to paint the Rohingya as illegal economic migrants rather than genuine asylum seekers.
In its preliminary look at the 193 who washed up on Aceh, Jakarta came to a similar conclusion.
Neither Thailand nor Indonesia are signatories to the widely accepted 1951 Refugee Convention which defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligation of states.
TRANSPARENT INVESTIGATION PROMISED
The view of Indonesia and Thailand that they are economic migrants is at odds with Mohammad’s testimony, as well as that of a group 78 Rohingya now in Thai police custody with wounds on their bodies they say were inflicted by Myanmar naval officials.
Mohammad said his group were intercepted by the Myanmar navy as they chugged south towards Thailand and Malaysia, and were beaten but then released.
“We were told by the navy not to come this way again and to tell others to also not come this way,” he said, adding they were then given some fuel, a compass and directions to Thailand. “When we got to Thailand we were tortured and detained.”
Thailand promised a transparent investigation into the allegations of army abuse, but said the probe would be led by the shadowy military unit at the heart of the scandal.
More than two weeks after the reports first emerged, it remains unclear why the army’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), set up in the Cold War to oversee anti-communist death squads, is now in charge of stopping Rohingya migrants.
“It’s our internal arrangement and if the military investigation is not satisfactory, we can set up another group to do it,” Foreign Minister Kasit Piromyas told reporters after meeting U.N. refugee officials in Bangkok.
Shortly after the meeting, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials were allowed access to 12 minors among the 78 in police custody in the Thai province of Ranong. The group are due to be deported after five days detention.
UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said the children, aged between 14 and 17, were in good condition, wearing clean clothes and able to talk freely. She said she could not reveal details of what they said before approval from the Thai government.
“They expressed their extreme gratitude to the Thai navy for saving their lives,” she said.
According to the UNHCR, 230,000 Rohingya now live in Bangladesh, having fled their ancestral homes in northwest Myanmar after decades of abuse and harassment at the hands of its Buddhist military rulers.
The junta does not recognise them as one of the country’s 130-odd ethnic minorities, and those in the northwest are restricted from travel inside the country. Besides Bangladesh, there are large numbers of Rohingya in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Jeremy Laurence)