BANGKOK (Reuters) - Rohingya caught in Thai waters are illegal economic migrants, not refugees, and will never be let into the country, Thailand said on Wednesday as controversy over its handling of the boat people refused to die down.
“There is no reasonable ground to believe that these migrants fled from their country of origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted,” the government said in a statement defending its treatment of the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority from neighboring Myanmar.
In the last two months, more than 550 Rohingya are feared to have drowned after the army forced 1,000 found in Thailand’s Andaman Sea into rickety wooden boats before towing them out to international waters and cutting them adrift.
The military and government insist the men were given adequate food and water and deny persistent allegations that the boats’ engines were sabotaged or, in one case, never existed at all.
“We have upheld our humanitarian tradition and ensured that new arrivals are adequately provided with food, water and medicines, with necessary repairs to their boats,” the statement said.
In a break with the army’s recent processing of the migrants on a remote, uninhabited island, a group of 78 found this week were handed over to police in the southwest province of Ranong for processing in the courts as illegal aliens.
A dozen of the group were under 18 and many had scars and open wounds on their bodies.
Police said they had reported being beaten en route by officials of Myanmar’s military junta, calling into question Bangkok’s blanket assertion that the Rohingya do not face persecution in their country of origin.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, 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 the country’s Buddhist military rulers.
The junta does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the former Burma’s 130-odd ethnic minorities, and those in the northwest are restricted from travel inside the country.
Although the Rohingya have only made domestic headlines this week, the reports of abuse by his armed forces have led to questions about Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s oft-stated commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
(For a FACTBOX on the Rohingya, click on [nBKK406291])
Editing by Darren Schuettler and Bill Tarrant