Monday, January 19, 2009

Andaman Culture Clash: Tourists and Boat People
Andaman Culture Clash: Tourists and Boat People

Andaman Culture Clash: Tourists and Boat People

Saturday, January 17, 2009
Filed for the South China Morning Post
TOURISTS on diving day-trips along the Andaman coast of Thailand hope to snap photos of a rare whale shark, or perhaps a turtle or two, down among the delightful coral reefs.

Yet recently, chances are that they will find themselves sharing an idyllic beach with thin and hungry refugees under armed military guard.

The golden sands of the Andaman, stretching north from the holiday island of Phuket, are renown as a wonderful place for swimming, sunbathing, and having a good time.

And as it turns out, those same sunny beaches provide convenient stretches of open space for laying out large numbers of illegal-immigrant boat people.

This week, images emerged of one tourist's memorable holiday day-trip, with sunbakers at one end of the beach, and rows of boat people, hands tied behind backs and faces forced onto the sand, at the other.

Such a contrast in the human condition on a single small arc of sand raised a range of moral issues at the same time as it highlights the plight of one of the world's most desperate and ignored people.

Just as most tourists went on frolicking and relaxing at one end of the beach while the boat people were laid out like so many sardines in the sun, so the nations of South-East Asia collectively go about ignoring the Rohingya.

An Asean summit next month, appropriately enough in Thailand, where all these moral issues have been exposed, may change all that.

Boatloads of these persecuted people, once a problem just for Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia especially, are now turning up in the waters of Indonesia and the isolated Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Were the boats deliberately detoured to Indonesia and India with the prevailing winds and currents because of a covert and horrifying change in policy in Thailand?

That's the question now being examined by the widening circle of Governments involved, along with human rights groups.

And because witnesses to the tragedy of the Rohingya boat people now include snap-happy day-trip tourists from Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany, Russia and Scandinavia, the outcome is that the issue of the Rohingya may finally be getting the international attention it has long deserved.

The Andaman coastline, remote but appealing for many reasons, is replete with paradoxes. This coast last came to global attention during the 2004 tsunami, when rich tourists and poor villagers alike were killed by the big wave.

Now the tsunami coast is home to a secret exile island where the Thai army hides unwelcome boat people before recklessly releasing them on unsafe vessels with only paddles for power.

As it happens, the same coast is home to some of the world's leading five-star resorts, many of them rebuilt after the tsunami.

So it is that in the same week as the esteemed New York Times travel section christened Phuket and the Andaman ''the luxury destination of the year,'' a tourist who had a memorable day trip came forward because he was also not prepared to forget the people being mistreated at the other end of the beach.

It is thought that Rohingya boat people land along the Andaman coast for two reasons: because they run out of food, or because they hope to proceed to Malaysia on foot.

For most, Malaysia is the goal.

A misguided attempt by predominantly Muslim Malaysia a few years ago to solve the ''problem'' of the Rohingya, who are also Muslims, simply gave it fresh poignancy and pain.

According to advocates and other who work with the Rohingya, the people smugglers, known as ''brokers,'' are the prime cause of the flow of human traffic south from Bangladesh and northern Burma.

Because some of the brokers are also known for allegedly dealing in arms and the refugees are all men of military age, the Thai Army fears the latest boatloads of Rohingya may be destined to become insurgent fighters in the deep south of Thailand, where a deadly daily conflict is largely blamed on Muslim unrest.

Like the strange scene on the sand at the Similans islands, another picture came together this week of two aspects of the same world.

Amnesty International condemned the Thai Army for ''torturing insurgent suspects'' while another international human rights group, Refugees International, blasted the same arm of the Thai military for recklessly pushing Rohingya back out to sea.

The Thai tourist industry has always gone to great lengths to make the point that the insurrection in the Deep South of Thailand is hundreds of kilometres from the Andaman coastline.

Chances of the conflict ever spreading to the Andaman, where Buddhists and Muslims have live contentedly together all along the coast for decades, are exceedingly remote.

But the covert activities of the Thai Army have, for the first time, inadvertently connected the tourist holiday Andaman coast with the bloody conflict of the Deep South.

It happened because of a sudden and unexpected change in policy.

In past Rohingya sailing seasons, the Royal Thai Navy, Marine Police and regular police would apprehend boat people between November and April, and repatriate them through Immigration channels.

But since early December, the Thai Army has been overseeing the collection of Rohingya boat people, hiding them in jungle on the island of Sai Dang (Red Sand) and setting them back out to sea in large numbers, in expectation that they will drift . . . where?

Perhaps to India or Indonesia, if their food holds out, or to an uncertain fate on the high seas.

Residents near the secret exile island and the local Army HQ say the Army has purchased two large boats recently, probably to carry the Rohingya out to sea.

Many of the smaller vessels in which the boat people arrived have been left to rot among the coastal mangroves.

According to advocate Chris Lewa, who runs the Arakan Project, the Rohingya are a people who are sandwiched on the margins between South Asia and South-East Asia, and disowned by Governments in both.

Connections with the small community of Rohingya in Malaysia lead them to believe a better life is possible, if only they can get there.

Brokers offer a passage for the equivalent of 10,000-12,000 baht, and poorer would-be voyagers win reduced fares if they round up other passengers.

''Brokers will charge more if their boats are in better condition,'' Ms Lewa said. ''Richer relations in Malaysia usually will not pay the broker until the passenger is on their doorstep.''

As to the Thai Army's security concern that only males are coming, Ms Lewa says the more conservative Rohingya townships keep women indoors and would not allow them to undertake such a dangerous 10 day or 12 day voyage south, in hope.

Those who have been forced to flee from Burma, where they are denied citizenship, to Bangladesh are no longer able to register as refugees, unlike the 28,000 already in camps there.

''Bangladesh treats the Rohingya badly, and so, of course, does Burma,'' she said.

One Project Arakan colleague was jailed briefly in Bangladesh.

That provided the opportunity for discovery of the ''released prisoners,'' a community of 700 Rohingyas in never-never land who have completed their prison sentences for immigration breaches but, as stateless citizens, cannot actually leave jail without official recognition as refugees.

''Some of them have been in this situation for 10 years,'' Ms Lewa said. ''It is just appalling,'' she said. ''I hope to make it my next project.''

Life is so harsh in Bangladesh and Burma for the Rohingya that one man, who narrowly escaped death from thirst on a failed journey to the promised land to the south, told her: ''I am going to try again because life in Burma is worse than the time we spent adrift on the sea.''

So they come south, believing that ''the Thai police are very nice,'' imagining a job as a construction worker in Malaysia, and sailing into the hands of the uncaring Thai Army.

Elements within other branches of the Thai military have already suggested that the Rohingya exodus should be examined by the United Nations.

Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post have been supplied with telling photographs over the past weeks by tourists, by the Royal Thai Navy, by Marine Police, and by the regular police.

We do not expect to receive photographs any time soon from the Thai Army.

The travails of the Rohingya across the Andaman Sea to Indonesia and Indian territory will inevitably provoke more questions, and their fate will almost certainly now become a topic at the important Asean summit in Thailand next month.

For one young Australian tourist, that day at Donald Duck beach on Similans Island Number 8 left indelible memories. It was a snorkelling celebration with three close friends to mark her 23rd birthday.

''We didn't know what was happening, but what we saw was horrible,'' she said. ''The day started as such fun, and it was such a contrast at the other end of the beach.

''At first, we couldn't believe what we were seeing. It was awful. They were treated like animals.''

Boat People 'Aiming for Phuket, Phang Nga'
The prospect of tourists encountering boat people is increasing on and around Phuket and Phang Nga as questions are being asked about Army brutality against refugees.
Boat People 'Aiming for Phuket, Phang Nga'

Similans Tourists See Boat People Mistreated
Bikinis and brute force
Thailand's Similan islands, one of the world's top dive sites, is now also a destination where tourists may see boat people roughly handled by armed military on the beaches.
Similans Tourists See Boat People Mistreated

How the Andaman Links to Amnesty 'Torture'
Photo Album
Amnesty accusations of 'torture' have an Andaman connection. The holiday coastline from Phuket northwards is now home to a mix of tourists and boat people, as well as locals.
How the Andaman Links to Amnesty 'Torture'

Exclusive: Secret Rohingya 'Exile Island' Revealed
Photo Album
Concern is increasing about the manner in which Rohingya are being secretly turned back to sea off Thailand after first being detained on an Andaman island
Exclusive: Secret Rohingya 'Exile Island' Revealed

In Pictures: Arrest of the Rohingya

Photo Special: Phuket Navy Holds Burmese Muslims
Photo Exclusive
The first astonishing photos of hundreds of Burmese Rohingya attempting to enter Thai waters are on Phuketwan now, as chronicled by the Royal Thai Navy.
Photo Special: Phuket Navy Holds Burmese Muslims

'Starving' Boatloads: Phuket Call for UN Action
World Exclusive
Hundreds of hungry boat people are being apprehended north of Phuket, prompting a call for United Nations intervention. Phuketwan exposes the Andaman's serious human rights issue, the Rohingya.
'Starving' Boatloads: Phuket Call for UN Action

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