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|Thai army Colonel Manat Khongpan (L, with cap) during the processing of a group of refugees|
BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand’s premier insisted Tuesday that his country had respected the rights of boat people from Myanmar, saying reports that the migrants were mistreated and abandoned at sea were “exaggerated”.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also said that foreign tourists who reportedly witnessed the incidents may have misunderstood what the Thai army and navy were trying to do with the immigrants.
Survivors and a human rights group have accused the Thai military of detaining and beating up to 1,000 members of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar late last year, before towing them out to sea with little food and water.
“The government will take action against illegal immigrants. If too many of them come, it will affect the country’s security. However, the actions will not violate human rights,” Abhisit told reporters.
He said the issue of human trafficking networks should be addressed with neighbouring countries, and blamed the migrants for getting into distress on purpose as a tactic to get into third countries.
“Sometimes they sail on boats without engines or sink their ships so that authorities help them to get onshore,” Abhisit said.
“Sometimes the information is exaggerated. Reports said (military actions) were witnessed by tourists — it may be a misunderstanding by tourists.”
Witnesses have reportedly said that some of the detainees were beaten within metres of foreign tourists on a remote Thai island off the coast, while photos have shown scores of migrants tied up on a beach.
Nearly 650 of the Muslim Rohingya have been rescued in waters off India and Indonesia. Some of them told officials that they were beaten in Thailand before being set adrift in barges with no engines or navigational equipment.
A local human rights organisation that monitors the treatment of Rohingya says that up to 550 of the migrants are still missing at sea, while Indian officials have said they too fear for hundreds who remain unaccounted for.
Thailand’s power army chief General Anupong Paojinda earlier denied the reports of abuse.
“The army chief said the army has followed the request by the prime minister and is investigating the Rohingya case,” said Colonel Thanatip Sawangsaeng, a spokesman for a state security body.
“He said the army has followed the international standards and adhered to humanitarian principles,” Thanatip told AFP.
Rights groups say the Rohingya are stateless and face persecution from Myanmar’s military regime, forcing thousands into rickety boats each year to try to escape poverty and oppression and head to Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Thailand has for the past few years taken a harsh stance on Rohingya landing on its shores, in part to discourage further migration through Thailand.
Human rights groups and the UN refugee agency have called on the government to ensure that any Rohingya arriving in Thailand are screened to determine if they would face persecution if returned home.