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ROHINGYA

UN asks Thailand for access to Rohingya boat people



Bangkok - Amid reports that the Thai navy forced hundreds of Rohingya boat people out to sea last month, leaving up to 500 missing, the United Nations on Tuesday asked the government for access to 126 surviving boat people now in Thai custody.

"We have asked the Thai government for access to two groups totalling 126 Rohingya boat people who are in custody in southern Thailand in order to assess their situation and determine whether any of them are in need of international protection," said a statement issued by United Nations High commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

 Last week the UNHCR expressed strong concern over allegations that the Thai navy towed hundreds of Rohingya boat people out to sea and left them to die. Rohingyas are a Muslim minority group from Myanmar's Arakan State who have been denied citizenship by the ruling junta.

 The Thai navy on December 18 and 30 pushed out to sea at least 992 Rohingya boat people in boats without engines or sufficient supplies reports based on survivors' testimonies said. An estimated 400 to 500 of the boat people are believed missing and feared drowned.

 The UNHCR has been informed that 126 Rohingya are being held in Thai military custody after being rescued in Thai waters.

 Their testimony would be crucial for determining what happened last month, which is now the subject of an army investigation.  Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva requested the investigation in to the Rohingya push-back case after talking to human rights groups at a meeting Monday at which the issue was raised.

 Thai Army Commander-in-Chief General Anupong Paochinda, while confirming Tuesday that the military will conduct the investigation, at the same time said he was confident no abuses had been committed against the Rohingya.

 The Arakan Project, a non-governmental organisation that monitors treatment of the Rohingyas, has provided evidence that the Thai Navy pushed some 992 Rohingyas in engineless boats back onto the high seas from southern Thailand.

 Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, said there may have been more push-backs that she was unaware of. "If some of the people hadn't survived we would never have known about these cases," said Lewa.  

News that the Thai military was pushing Rohingya refugees out to sea came to light last month when the Indian Navy on December 18 rescued 107 people from a boat who claimed that they had been put to sea in the engineless craft by the Thai Navy and set adrift.

According to the survivors, about 300 of the 412 refugees had drowned when they jumped overboard to try to swim to shore.

 Another group of 580 Rohingyas was allegedly shoved back to sea on December 30 in five boats after the engines were removed, said Lewa. 

   Of this group, some 193 were rescued near Indonesia's Sabang Island in Aceh province on January 7 and an another boat with 150 onboard was rescued off Tillanchang Island, India, on January 10.  

   On January 6, another 81 Rohingyas were rescued by Thai fishermen, and have since been put under Thai military custody again, said Lewa. 

   The Arakan Project was still checking whether this group was part of the 580 pushed back on December 30. 

   There are still between 400 to 500 of the refugees unaccounted for, she said.

 The Thai miliary has denied the accusations, although officials acknowledge that they see the Myanmar-Muslims as a security threat, suspecting them of coming to Thailand to join Thai-Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand's Pattani area.

 "Definitely the reason for this is national security," said Lewa, speculating on the Thai military's drastic measures.

 Lewa, who has worked with the Rohingya for years, said she was convinced the majority had landed in Thailand en route to Malaysia, where they can look for employment, paying brokers about 1,000 dollars for the passage.

 The Rohingyas, numbering about 750,000 in Arakan, are stateless people, having been denied citizenship in Myanmar and Bangladesh.      Lewa called for Thailand to find a regional solution to the new wave of boat people. 

   "It's a regional issue," said Lewa. "Thailand cannot solve it alone, but should collaborate with the counties concerned and international agencies to find a solution to this problem."

   The UN agrees.

 "Because the plight of the Rohingyas is a regional problem, UNHCR is urgently seeking to discuss with the Thai government ways that all concerned countries can address the root causes that impel the Rohingya to put their lives at risk on such perilous journeys," said the UNHCR statement.


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