‘Push back’: the desperate search for refuge in Thailand
Last Tuesday afternoon, the Thai Navy stopped a fishing boat off the coast of the holiday island of Phuket. It wasn’t a routine procedure however – naval officers couldn’t board the rickety looking craft because there wasn’t room for them to stand on it. Every single inch of it was packed with desperate human beings from neighbouring Burma.
In video filmed by a local newspaper you can see 205 men and boys begging for assistance from naval personnel. Their pleading — and their tears went unanswered though. The Thais tossed them a couple of canisters of drinking water and ordered them to sail south, towards Malaysia. It’s better known in these parts as a ‘push-back’ – a pitiless decision made in face of great human misery.
The people on board this luckless vessel were Muslim Rohingya – and there are thousands of them now fleeing persecution and ethnic conflict in Burma’s north-west. The vast majority of Rohingya see Thailand as their best bet — either as a place to settle – or a temporary home before moving on to Malaysia or Indonesia.
Yet the Thais cannot decide what to do with the Rohingya and there is growing evidence of a massive split developing within government - the country’s military for example, seems to be acting wholly independently of its civilian masters.
Eight days ago, the Thai government convened a special inter-departmental meeting where it was decided that Rohingya arriving in the country would be offered temporary shelter for six months:
Here’s how the Bangkok Post reported it:
“Thailand will shelter Royingya for six months and seek talks with Myanmar (Burma) and other countries to settle the fate of the illegal migrants, Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Friday.
The decision was reached in talks between the Foreign Ministry and other security agencies amid growing calls for Thailand not to turn the migrants away after they have entered the kingdom.”
On Tuesday however — the same day 205 people were ‘pushed-back’ off Phuket — the National Security Chief, Paradorn Pattanathaburt, announced that the Thai military will ‘no longer’ allow the Rohingya to land in Thailand. One day later, another 140 Rohingya were turned away from waters near the port of Ranong.
These two ‘decisions’ — letting Rohingya stay for six months – or pushing them back — are completely contradictory and suggest a major divergence of opinion within the Thai government. Civil rights groups go further, suggesting the Thai military may be actively trying to undermine the government by engaging in these ‘push-backs’:
Here’s what Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch has to say: “The problem is the Thai security forces have not changed their view that these helpless Rohingya, arriving with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, are somehow a national security threat to Thailand.”
On Thursday I conducted an exclusive interview with Secretary-General Paradorn and I put it to him that Thailand’s position on the arrival of Rohingya was confused. He disagreed with my assertion; “it is not a conflicting policy at the operational level. We are still trying to stop them and push them back. But if we can’t send them back right away, we’ll detain them for a period of time, like six months.”
I asked Secretary General Paradorn to outline the particular circumstances when the military decides not to send boats with Rohingya back to sea. “When we are unable send them back to their country of origin or on to another country,” he replied.
If the military was applying this rational consistently however, all Rohingya would be given temporary leave to remain in Thailand because the occupants of all these boats are in the same position – no Rohingya can be sent back to Burma (because the Burmese won’t let them back) and no ‘third-country’ has volunteered to take them. So why is the Thai Navy engaing in ‘push-backs’?
The best way to understand what is happening here is to focus on which branch of the Thai government makes initial contact with the vessels. If the Thai Navy gets there first, in all likelihood they will be sent back to sea. If another government department is called in – like the marine police for example, there is a good chance they will be allowed to stay (and that is exactly what took place in our film shot in the town of Karaburi).
This arrangement — if that’s the word for it – is arbitrary and unfair. It seems incredible to put it this way but the chances of survival for many Rohingya may depend on who comes out to meet them when they enter Thai waters.