BAN HIN LAT, PHANGNGA - The UN's refugee agency has asked the Thai government to verify reports that authorities fired shots at an intercepted boat carrying 133 Rohingya last month, which may have resulted in at least two deaths.
The UNHCR also wants Thailand to confirm that the boat was dragged twice into international waters, after it was located in Koh Surin in Phangnga province around Feb 20.
The UNHCR says after interviewing survivors _ including women and children _ they believe the boat arrived in Indonesia's Aceh province on Feb 26 with 121 people on board. They had left Myanmar's Rakhine state on Feb 5 and had run out of food and water when they landed on Koh Surin. At least three shots were fired by Thai authorities, though it's unclear whether they were aimed at passengers or intended as warning shots.
A special investigation by the Bangkok Post Sunday has unearthed claims by Muslim villagers on the Phangnga mainland who helped some of the boatpeople that the death toll was much higher.
Ga, a Muslim who works at a resort on Koh Surin, said she noticed the Rohingya boat floating off the island on Feb 20 and asked her friends to use a speed boat to drag the vessel to shore.
''Once they were on the land, we cooked them food and we contacted an official to take care of them,'' said Ga, who took footage of the boatpeople on her mobile phone. ''After that navy ship Tor 214 arrived. They said they would take care of the Rohingya people.''
Ga said she felt relieved that the vessel would be towed into international waters and the Rohingya would sail to Malaysia. However, Ga said the navy officers were given other instructions to take the boat to Ban Hin Lat on the mainland near Koh Phrathong.
A Muslim leader in the village who later helped bless and dispose of two bodies recovered near Ban Hin Lat said they had been contacted by walkie-talkie and told they should be ready to receive the boat at 9-10pm that night. He did not say who had contacted them or whether the Rohingya were going to be processed by Thai immigration officials.
''Whenever Rohingya people come in, we all gather to help provide them with food and other basic needs,'' he said. ''We even provide them with shelter to rest before the immigration police take them in. That is why we went to wait that night.''
However, no boat arrived and the next day fishermen from Ban Hin Lat reported hearing gunshots during the night while fishing near Koh Phrathong.
''We weren't sure what happened until we found bodies floating behind Koh Phrathong a week after that day,'' he said.
''I saw one of the bodies and it appeared to be badly injured. The skull was pushed in as if he was hit with some hard object on his head before he died. I also saw a hole in his temple and I am quite sure that it was from a bullet.''
Another villager said they rescued five Rohingya men from waters between Koh Phrathong and the mainland. He said a villager who spoke Bangladeshi translated the men's accounts of what happened.
The men said the navy personnel had tried to transfer some of the Rohingya to another boat and they became fearful that they would be trafficked by the Thais.
''They feared that they would be sold to other people and that's why they jumped of the Rohingya boat,'' the villager said. ''They said the moment that they jumped, they heard gun shots. They did not pay any attention to see whether it was a warning shot in the sky or a shot aimed at killing those who swam away from the boat.''
He declined to say where the five Rohingya are now, but Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch said they had already headed to Malaysia.
The villager said local fishermen had reported seeing close to 20 bodies floating in the water.
Pol Col Weerasin Kwancheng, superintendent of Kuraburi Police Station, confirmed that two bodies were found in the ocean.
''I received a report saying two bodies of unidentified men were found floating in the water and they were sent to Kuraburi Chaipat Hospital. I cannot confirm whether the bodies were Rohingya or a Myanmar fishing ship crew as their bodies were already decayed.
''No one came to claim the bodies so I sent them to a Muslim mosque nearby to perform religious ceremonies and bury them.''
Pol Col Weerasin did not reveal the results of the autopsies on the bodies.
Kuraburi Chaipat Hospital emergency room staff said they could not reveal the autopsy results as they were confidential.
''All I can confirm is that two male bodies were sent to our hospital on Feb 28. We could not identify them but we did perform the autopsies''.
She said as no relatives identified the bodies they let police claim them as standard procedure.
Ga from Koh Surin said when she heard about the bodies being recovered she went to the hospital. She said she could identify two of the men as the boatpeople she had fed from a blue shirt and white tank top they were wearing.
''I asked the doctor what the cause of death was and he told me that crabs had eaten one of the corpse's face, that's why one of the bodies appeared faceless.
''I don't believe what the doctor told me at all. So I took the body back to the Muslim cemetery of the village, while another body was taken to another cemetery to be buried.''
Third Fleet commander Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khachitsuwan has strongly denied any navy personnel fired on Rohinya boatpeople and said they followed Thai government policy of feeding them and pushing the vessel out to sea.
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- Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai