Harbour for Rohingya or stop on way to hell?
For thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state, the sleepy fishing village of Ban Hin Lat is the first port of call on their difficult quest to find better lives.
- Published: 24/03/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
DARING TO DREAM: A Rohingya boy at the Phangnga Shelter for Children and Families looks up with his eyes full of hope for a better life.
If they make it to the village in the Khura Buri district of Phangnga they will find a relatively well-off fishing community and locals more than sympathetic to their plight. Most of the locals are Muslims, and some Myanmar nationals work legally on fishing boats.
In the grounds of the local mosque, out of sight from the main road, is a 10m Rohingya vessel inscribed in Thai with the words "Rohingya people _ the forgotten citizens of the world".
Ga, a 43-year-old Thai Muslim who heads the unofficial Rohingya Help Centre in Hin Lat, says she had a negative attitude toward the Rohingya before she got to know them.
"Once I got to talk to them, I realised we are so much alike," said Ga, who requested her full name not be used.
"First of all, the Rohingya are strict Muslims. They practise their religion _ such as praying five times a day _ just like us.
A BRIEF RESPITE: A group of Rohingya who arrived on Koh Surin on Feb 20 being fed by villagers on the island before the alleged shootings occurred.
"Even though we speak a different language, we believe in the same things and we do no harm to other people. They are just seeking a peaceful and better place to live where they can feel safe and be treated as equals ... as human beings."
Ga, who works on Koh Surin as a cook, played a key role in the drama last month involving 133 Rohingya that led to allegations that the Royal Thai Navy shot at a group of them, resulting in the deaths of two men.
It was Ga who first noticed the Rohingya vessel on Feb 20 and sent a speedboat to tow it to Koh Surin. The weary passengers, who had set out from Rakhine state on Feb 5 were fed on the island by Ga and her friends, who then contacted the navy. The feeding of the Rohingya was organised and paid for by the help centre.
Ga believed the Rohingya would be taken out to sea, but alternative plans were made to send them to a temporary shelter at Hin Lat on the mainland. However, the vessel never arrived and two bodies were found in the water off Koh Phra Thong near Hin Lat a week later, while five other Rohingya men were rescued from the sea.
Ga, who took footage of the rescued Rohingya on her mobile phone, was on hand when the bodies were recovered, saying she later identified them in the hospital from their clothing. She also provided a Bangladeshi-speaking roti seller to act as an interpreter for the five rescued men.
A Rohingya woman takes care of the baby girl she gave birth to earlier this year on a boat during the journey from Myanmar to Thailand.
Bang Bao, a senior religious leader in the village, says because of its location, Hin Lat is a natural stopping-off point for Rohingya boatpeople as they inevitably run out of fuel or provisions here, although their intended destination may be Malaysia or Indonesia.
"Since about November last year until February this year, there have been so many Rohingya arriving illegally by boat," he said.
"From the conversations I've had with the Rohingya who made it here, they said their boats run out of fuel when they reach Thai waters.
"They just wait for the tide to take them closer to land. It almost sounds like it is well-planned. Most of the boats usually make landfall near Koh Phra Thong or Koh Surin."
Surapong Kongchantuk, of the Lawyers' Council of Thailand, is chairman of the Human Rights Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities, Stateless, Migrant Workers and Displaced Persons. He said he had not heard from his contacts about smuggling through the village.
However, he said the situation at Hin Lat sounded typical of the smuggling rings involving Rohingya and locals who work in conjunction with the Thai military.
Often this involves a local "spotter" who notifies the human traffickers of a boat's arrival.
"On every boat carrying Rohingya people, there are usually one or two traffickers," he said. "They are the ones who have the mobile phones with different SIMs for each country. They call the traffickers on the other side to report their location and when they expect to arrive."
Mr Surapong said a call is then made to a contact on the mainland to prepare for the arrival of the boatpeople.
"Once they arrive, government officials make it appear they are under arrest, but in fact they are sent to a safe house to wait for people to buy them," he said.
"But that was before the government came up with the idea of pushing the boats back out to sea and not allowing the Rohingya ashore on the mainland," he said referring to the new government policy of returning the boats to sea, rather than having the Rohingya land and be processed by immigration officials. Prior to this policy change, Rohingya who landed or who were intercepted and sent to the mainland were dealt with by the Internal Security Operations Command or the immigration police.
Mr Surapong said while the modus operandi at Hin Lat closely matched other Rohingya trafficking cases, he was not drawing any conclusions that local villagers were involved in human smuggling.
"They may simply be helping other Muslims," he said.
Mr Bao said they allowed the Rohingya Help Centre to use the mosque as a headquarters and gathering point because of a shortage of facilities.
He said the help centre was set up at the request of the Khura Buri district office. When Rohingya are sent to the mainland the villagers offer them food and temporary accommodation before they are taken to the shelter.
"We were all quite happy to do it because the Rohingya are Muslims just like us," Mr Bao said of the help centre.
"We believe that we are all the same _ brothers and sisters. Therefore, we have to offer each other help."
Regarding the Feb 20 incident, Mr Bao said a worker related to Ga on Surin island had phoned ahead to tell the villagers to prepare for the arrival of the vessel that night.
FEET FIRST: Football is one of the activities boys at the shelter enjoy. Sometimes they compete against male staff members of the shelter.
He said they expected the Rohingya to spend a few days recovering before being handed over to immigration police.
Mr Bao said that as the boatpeople had landed on Koh Surin, he believed they had effectively reached Thai territory and had to be processed by immigration officials, rather than being pushed back out to sea.
THE LITTLE FISH ARE SWEETER
Rohingya women and children who make it to the mainland in the province are sent to the Phangnga Shelter for Children and Families, 100km south of Hin Lat.
Dararat Suthes, head of the centre, said police transferred the first batch of Rohingya _ eight women, 10 boys and seven girls _ to them on Jan 16.
''After that, there were a lot more sent to our shelter almost daily for a week, and more once a week after that,'' she said.
At present, there are 68 Rohingya in the shelter; 35 boys, nine girls and 24 women.
''We only have nine people, including myself, to take care of the 16 Thai kids we have,'' she said.
''With the Rohingya, now we have to take care of an extra 68 people. We only have enough money to feed 30 people _ 60 baht per person per day. Without donations of food, clothes and money we wouldn't be able to take care of these people.''
Mrs Dararat also said six boys had run away from the shelter after a visit by a group of men in early February who were posing as a Muslim welfare group checking whether they were being fed the right food and allowed to practise their religious beliefs.
''A group of men who called themselves the Muslim Association came to visit the Rohingya to check on their welfare and how they were getting on,'' she said.
''After that day, two boys ran away on Feb 11, and another two days later,'' he said ''The Muslim Association came back at the beginning of March and another three boys disappeared on March 4.
''I believe the people pretending to be from the Muslim Association must be behind all this. There was one time in February when a group of men came to the shelter around 7pm and asked us directly how much one Rohingya would cost? One of my staff was very scared. She told them that people here are not for sale.''
Mrs Dararat said the Rohingya seemed to trust only other Muslims, especially those from Malaysia.
''If you pretend to be a Muslim from Malaysia you will get their full attention,'' she said.
A member of the Spectrum team posed as a Malaysian Muslim to test the theory. Several of the boys ran to their rooms and returned with telephone numbers written on pieces of paper. Mrs Dararat believed these were contact details of human smugglers. Some of the children said in broken English ''Me go Malaysia, with you OK?''
Mrs Dararat said she did not know how much longer the Rohingya would be at the shelter.
''The Phangnga provincial office promised that they will be at the shelter for only six months and then they will be transferred elsewhere,'' she said.
''I only hope they can go where they want without being sold as if they are pieces of meat.''
Mr Surapong said it was not unusual that staff at the shelter would be asked to sell Rohingya.
''There are some shelters in the South where Rohingya can easily be bought,'' he said.
''This is big business. One Rohingya can cost up to 50,000 baht. Sometimes a whole boatload can cost more than 1.5 million baht. That is why people are involved in trafficking.''
BEATING THE TRAFFICK
Through her work at the Rohingya Help Centre, Ga echoes the sentiments of Mrs Dararat on the recent increase in the number of Rohingya coming through Hin Lat.
''They never came in these numbers before,'' she said. ''I've seen them in the past and I believed they were looking for asylum since there were men and women travelling together and their ages ranged from young to old.
''Now I feel there are more seeking jobs through human-trafficking agents. There are a lot more Rohingya travelling through Thailand to Malaysia and most of them are adult men.''
Despite her growing scepticism about the motives for their journeys, Ga says the local Muslim community has no qualms about feeding the Rohingya halal food and offering them a place at the mosque.
''They can spend the night before government officials come to take them to Rohingya shelters in Phangnga, Surat Thani, Songkhla and other provinces in the South,'' she said.
''We spend community funds to pay for food and supplies for the Rohingya who arrive at our village. Sometimes we have to cover some expenses ourselves, but we don't mind helping out.''
Ga said when the two bodies were found by fishermen on Feb 28 she covered the expenses to retrieve them. ''I paid for the fuel for another boat to bring the bodies back to our village and I took the bodies to the hospital with my own truck.''
Ga also revealed the villagers had played a key role in keeping the five rescued survivors away from the navy.
''Fishermen from our village discovered them and took them back to the village where we kept them hidden,'' she said. ''They were quite scared of the navy and asked to stay.
''We provided their accommodation, but I can't reveal where. Most have already left and continued on their journey.''
Ga also said that sometimes Rohingya in temporary accommodation in Hin Lat fled before they were taken to government shelters.
''I know that the Rohingya who came here already had the contact details of human traffickers who are able to get them to where they want to go,'' she said. ''I've long suspected that government officials are somehow involved with the trafficking.''
Mr Surapong said the ''mass shooting'' near Koh Phra Thong had changed the relationship between the Rohingya and the Thai ''men in uniform'' involved in the human smuggling racket. In the past, corruption and bribes had been an accepted part of the deal to reach their destination, but the Rohingya would not tolerate Thai officials allegedly firing on them.
''They were happy to see Thai government officials involved in human trafficking activities, until the deaths of the two Rohingya,'' he said.
The two bodies recovered had autopsies performed on them at the Khura Buri Chaipat Hospital on Feb 28. Neither the hospital nor the local police were willing to reveal the results of the autopsies and the bodies have been buried.
Pol Col Weerasin Kwancheng, superintendent of Khura Buri Police Station told Spectrum on Thursday the causes of death of the two men were unknown.
''The Khura Buri Chaipat Hospital performed autopsies on the two unidentified men found floating in the water off Ko Phra Thong on Feb 28, but they couldn't find out the causes of death. The bodies were badly decayed and the hospital didn't have the equipment for more thorough autopsies. Therefore, the hospital couldn't determine the actual causes of death.''
Mr Surapong said that at a human trafficking seminar he held in Bangkok on March 14, a group of angry Rohingya claimed 15 Rohingya had been killed in Khura Buri.
Mr Surapong said the government needed a clearer policy to deal with Rohingya otherwise the same tragedies would be repeated every year.
''They should now close the border and not allow any more Rohingya to enter the country,'' he said.
''We should deal with the 1,700 Rohingya that are here by sending them back to their place of origin.
''The most important step is to find out who is behind this and punish them. Though it's difficult, it can be done.''
A COMMUNITY FULL OF COLOUR
The village of Ban Hin Lat dates back to 1945, when it was settled by Muslims from Krabi and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces. Today, the thriving community is home to 2,227 people, of which 80% percent are Muslim, including a number of migrant fishermen from Myanmar.
Fishing is a key driver of the local economy, along with its rubber and palm tree plantations.
Architecturally, Hin Lat is a blend of ancient and modern. Traditional fishermen's cottages sit comfortably alongside the colourful modern homes of the village's wealthier residents.
The bright paintwork is typical of Muslim homes in southern Thailand, where vibrant hues are used as a sign of prosperity.
Most properties in the village are single storey, except for the small number belonging to civic leaders and other prominent figures.
Unlike many villages in Thailand, Hin Lat has a paved road running through its central area. Though despite the nod to modern infrastructure, much of the activity in the community revolves around the market areas and back streets, where rows of vendors tout their wares and local folk chat among themselves in their distinctive southern dialect.
At one end of the main street is the harbour. Tourists can catch a boat there to Koh Pra Thong, one of Phangnga's main attractions.
Close to the entrance to the village is the community mosque at Hin Lat Moo 3. As well as providing a religious focal point for the community, the mosque is home to the Rohingya Help Centre. Suitably, within its grounds is a small fishing boat that was used by a group of Rohingya people to flee Myanmar and later put on display by the local people.
Villagers told Spectrum that they preserved the boat as a reminder of the 120 Rohingya people who sailed in it from Myanmar to Thailand, and whose lives they helped to save.
Written in Thai along the side of the vessel are the words, ''Rohingya people _ the forgotten citizens of the world''.
SOMBRE SOUVENIR: A Rohingya boat next to the mosque at Hin Lat bears the legend ‘Rohingya people —the forgotten citizens of the world’.
MESSAGES OF DESPERATION: Rohingya children wrote their fathers’ names in English on this wall in a shelter in hopes it might lead to a reunion.
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES: A group of Rohingya children watch as a boy shows off his moves at a dance-off competition among the group.
GATEWAY TO THE SEA: The harbour at Hin Lat is central to the local economy.
About the author
- Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai
- Position: Reporter