India said Sunday that hundreds of people were missing at sea, believed to be part of a wave of boat people allegedly dragged out to the middle of the ocean by Thailand and left to die. Thailand has denied the accusations, but accounts of survivors and the latest reports from the Indian coast guard have piled the pressure on Bangkok, and the Thai government said it would meet rights groups on Monday.
The Thai navy is accused of detaining the migrants, from a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar, after they washed up on the Thai coast - and then towing them to sea and leaving them to their fate. India’s coast guard said Sunday it had rescued hundreds of the refugees from the Rohingya ethnic group, who live along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, but that hundreds more were feared lost. “They said they were taken to an island off the Thai coast and beaten up before being forced into boats and pushed into the high seas,” said Ranjit Narayan, a police official on India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands.
“We fear several hundred are still missing,” coast guard commander S.P. Sharma told AFP. He said India had rescued 446 refugees from four boats since the end of December. Those figures are in line with those of the Sunday Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, which said it had compiled a toll of 538 missing or dead. Sharma said the migrants said they had been arrested by Thai officials and set adrift without engines or navigational equipment. “Some survivors also said their boat was towed out to sea by the Thai navy and given two sacks of boiled rice and two gallons of water before being abandoned in the middle of the sea,” he said.
The Bangkok Post newspaper on Sunday carried accounts from survivors. “We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine… we were then towed into the high seas by a motor boat and set adrift,” a man named as Zaw Min told the paper. Thailand is facing a brutal separatist insurgency in the south of the country that has left more than 3,500 people dead in the last five years, and the government would be sensitive about any mass influx of migrants. But the Thai navy and other government officials have denied the accusations. “Authorities followed the regular process when arresting the illegal migrants,” navy spokesman Captain Prachachart Sirisawat told AFP.
Yet mounting photographic evidence, and accounts from Western tourists who have recently visited the beautiful sun-dappled islands on Thailand’s Andaman coast, have supported the charges. Media reports have shown photographs of people on a beach with their hands trussed above their heads. “These are really serious allegations that need to be investigated by the UN and the Thai government,” said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The Rohingya are stateless and face persecution from Myanmar’s military regime, forcing thousands to rickety boats each year to try to escape poverty and oppression and head to Muslim-majority Malaysia. Mathieson told AFP that Thailand had for the past few years taken a harsh stance on Rohingya landing on its shores, in part because they wanted to discourage further migration of the group through Thailand. There were also fears that some are mercenaries trying to join the separatist insurgency, although Mathieson said there was little evidence to back up those claims.