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13 June 2024

Myanmar migrants say cast adrift by Thais: Indonesia navy

Ethnic Rohingya refugees lay sprawled on the ground after being rescued by Acehnese fishermen on Sabang, an island off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia.(AP)


About 200 Myanmar migrants found adrift off Sumatra told rescuers they were beaten, towed out to sea and left to their fate by Thai security forces, an Indonesian navy officer said Tuesday.

They said 22 others had perished as they drifted at sea for three weeks in a wooden boat that had no engine and was held together with rope, navy officer Tedi Sutardi told AFP.

Fishermen found them huddled in the boat off Indonesia's Sumatra island on Monday.

"Fishermen found a wooden boat without an engine drifting in the sea with 198 Myanmar migrants. They said Thai authorities towed them out to sea and set them adrift," Sutardi said.

The migrants, all men from Myanmar's minority Muslim Rohingya community, said they had been cast adrift by Thai security forces as they tried to flee persecution in their military-ruled homeland.

They also spoke of nine other boats set adrift by the Thais.

They showed scars from beatings they said they had received at the hands of the Thais, matching similar allegations from another group of 174 Rohingya who were found off Sumatra on January 7.

"Their boat was small. It's only 12 metres long and three metres wide. It had almost come apart and was held together with ropes," Sutardi said.

"They were drifting for about 21 days. Most of them are in critical condition and are receiving treatment at a local state hospital in East Aceh district."

A nurse at the hospital said about 50 migrants were being treated there and were in "very weak" condition.

Using limited Malay, the Bengali-speaking migrants said they had left their homes in Myanmar's western Arakan state because they were being forced to embrace Buddhism, according to the navy officer.

They said the military authorities in the mainly Buddhist country chopped their fingers off if they tried to pray.

"Some men were beaten and they were very thin. I saw the scars on their bodies," Sutardi said.

"They fled their country as they were tortured for not embracing Buddhism. They said Muslims who prayed had their fingers cut off in their country."

Myanmar's military rulers effectively deny citizenship rights to the Rohingya, leading to discrimination and abuse and contributing to a regional humanitarian crisis as hundreds try to flee the country by boat every year.

Media reports and a local human rights group have said nearly 1,000 of the Rohingya landed on Thai shores late last year, before being towed out to sea and left with few supplies in separate groups in mid and late December.

Sutardi said the migrants found Monday had confirmed those reports, putting their number at 1,200.

About 650 Rohingya migrants were found drifting in Indonesian and Indian waters in January, telling the same stories of abuse by the Myanmar and Thai authorities. Scores may still be at sea.

Bangkok denies the charges, saying all migrants were processed humanely.

Buddhist Thailand is facing a Muslim rebellion in its southern provinces, while its western border is already dotted with refugee camps full of people from persecuted Myanmar ethnic minorities.

Indonesia and Thailand treat the Rohingya as economic migrants despite pressure from the United Nations refugee agency and independent rights groups to grant them fair and transparent asylum hearings.

Mainly Muslim Indonesia has said the migrants found on January 7 probably will be repatriated to Myanmar despite their fears of persecution.

The foreign ministry spokesman in Jakarta would not comment on the migrants' allegations.

Indonesia has denied the UN refugee agency access to those who arrived on January 7 and has tried to prevent journalists from interviewing them. It has also refused to comment on their claims of abuse by Thai security forces.

Amnesty International has demanded that Thailand "stop forcibly expelling Rohingyas" and urged regional governments to grant them fair hearings.