Deaths of Rohingya refugees a tricky issue in Thailand

Bangkok - In the shade of a quiet grove in Phang Nga near Phuket in southern Thailand, two fresh graves have raised uncomfortable questions for Thailand's government.

In the unmarked graves under freshly turned red earth, lie the bodies of two unidentified men. Local villagers and Rohingya boat people claim they are Rohingya shot by the Thai navy sometime in late February as they attempted to swim ashore.

That there were gunshots that day is beyond dispute. Several local Thai villagers heard them. Later they found two bodies and buried them. More are said to be missing and unaccounted for.

The Navy says its men fired in the air. It denies that they were shooting at anybody.

The Rohingya interviewed at the site and also days later in Indonesia, agree that some jumped overboard when it became obvious their boat with around 130 aboard was being towed out by the Navy and would be left at sea. They tried to swim ashore, whereupon the Navy men opened fire. Then the narratives differ.

One survivor called Rafik told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ''When the boat was being towed out, we were afraid we would be pushed out to sea, so 10 to 15 people jumped off. Then they opened fire.''

''I know that one was dead, some said two were dead'' he said.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Myanmar's Rakhine state. Discriminated against by both the central government and ethnic Arakanese who see them as illegal ''Bengali'' immigrants out to swamp the state, many have fled the state - one of Myanmar's poorest to boot - over the years.

Sectarian violence tearing apart Rohingya and Arakanese communities last year, prompted a renewed exodus of Rohingya mostly headed to Malaysia which has an open door policy for them. But the 1-2 week journey on overloaded wooden fishing boats is both desperate and dangerous. Many fetch up in southern Thailand and pass into the clutches of people smugglers.

Asked about the shooting incident at a dinner with the foreign media on March 11, Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said ''We don't encourage any violence or any harm to anyone. We will have to be fair to everyone and we will look and investigate the case.''

The premier summoned Navy Chief Admiral Surasak Rounruengrom to Government House on Monday (18th). After their meeting he told journalists the Navy men had not shot at anyone and was committed to a humanitarian approach to the Rohingya.

Indeed the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees in a statement said at least three shots were fired, but it was unclear whether they were warning shots or aimed at the boat passengers.

It was also unclear whether the two bodies buried in the grove had been shot or drowned - because there is no detailed forensic report. According to the New York-based non government agency Human Right Watch (HRW), a doctor had seen the bodies briefly and had not been clear on the cause of death.

And so far, there are no orders for the bodies to be exhumed and examined again. Yet the locals claim one body had a gunshot wound to the head.

Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for HRW, told The Straits Times ''Given the seriousness of the allegation, the government should set up an inquiry.''

''This tactic of a quick rebuttal may have worked 10-20 years go, but not today. We have videos, we have local Thai villagers' accounts. They heard gunshots and found two dead bodies. For Thailand to clear its name it would be more effective to have a transparent investigation.''

One problem, is that in security issues in Thailand's sensitive border zones, security forces rule. This is well known to analysts and civilian government authorities have to accept it and accommodate.

''Interceptions out at sea are all in the hands of the Thai security forces with no civilian oversight'' Mr Sunai said.

Mr Manasvi Srisodapol, spokesman for Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said ''The information we have from the Royal Thai Navy is that they did not shoot at anyone.''

''We have already sensitised them as well as the National Security Council, about the media's concerns and HRW's concerns.''

''We are very careful'' on the issue of the Rohingya, he said. ''The Prime Minister has already given a directive this year that we will provide humanitarian assistance.''

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