Repugnant refugee policy must be disowned, South China Morning Post

The photographs we publish today of boatpeople under detention on a Thai tourist beach show how a picture can be worth a thousand words. They bring to life a witness’ account of the rough reception that awaits Muslims from Myanmar who take to the sea in small boats in the hope of escaping oppression and poverty.

As we report today, dozens of refugees were detained for hours and some were beaten by the Thai navy, in scenes that unfolded on a tourist beach in full view of foreign holidaymakers.

But it is what the pictures do not show that has outraged human rights groups even more. As reported exclusively in the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) earlier this week, the Thai navy and police turn the boatpeople over to the Thai army, which secretly detains them on an island in the Andaman Sea before towing them into international waters and abandoning them in primitive hulks with only paddles for propulsion.

Thailand has long wrestled with the legal and social problems posed by hundreds of thousands of refugees from a life of forced labour and political repression under the military junta in Myanmar. Some years ago former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra adopted a policy of forced repatriation in contravention of international practices.

However, more recently the authorities began taking an even tougher line with the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in western Myanmar. Many have fled to Bangladesh. At this time of the year, encouraged by unscrupulous sea-passage brokers, they set sail for Southeast Asia in their thousands.

Thai authorities cite security concerns – that the new arrivals, all adult males, may head south to join the long-running Muslim terrorist insurgency. Last March, an outcry from human rights advocates reportedly shelved a government plan to have the Rohingya detained on a deserted island. But some authorities continued working on a security plan in secret. As late as this week, the regional chief of the Internal Security Operations Command denied the army had any part in it.

Even if the security fear justifies tough security and deterrent measures, abandoning people at sea without sails or motors is a crude and inhumane solution, not to mention a contravention of international human rights.

New Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, elected only last month, inherited this repugnant policy. For the sake of Thailand’s regional reputation, he should disown it immediately. A first step would be to restore responsibility for Rohingya refugees to where it rightly belongs – with the immigration authorities – and order that measures to meet the country’s legitimate security concerns do not abuse basic human rights. The refugees should be processed according to lawful immigration procedures – not left to be dealt with by the Thai military.

Secondly, as host of next month’s summit in Bangkok of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he should seize the opportunity to raise the issue. It is not Thailand’s problem alone. There are also reports of Rohingya reaching Indonesia and Malaysia, fellow Asean members. While abuse of human rights in Myanmar may be considered a delicate issue by Asean under the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, the tide of illegal immigration it washes onto nearby shores is unquestionably a legitimate concern for the regional body.