The Thai navy has rejected a leading human rights group’s accusation that its sailors shot Rohingya asylum seekers.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thai sailors on Feb 22 opened fire on a group of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar after forcing them onto a boat being sent back to sea off Phang Nga province. The group called on the government to investigate the incident.
The Royal Thai Navy responded on Wednesday.
“The navy commander [Adm Surasak Rounroengrom] has insisted that the navy did not kill or shoot at the Rohingya,” a navy source told the Bangkok Post. “We feel for them. No humans or sailors can commit such act because the Rohingya people are not our enemy.”
Firing on the Rohingya “doesn’t even cross our minds,” the source said.
Adm Surasak on Wednesday visited a naval base in Phang Nga to meet navy personnel, look into Rohingya-related issues and inspect the construction of a new port.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Monday that the government doesn’t encourage violence and will investigate.
The foreign ministry backed the Navy’s denial. “The Thai Navy commander responsible for that area has rejected the report,” said spokesman Manasvi Srisodapol.
He said there was “no reason to shoot or hurt” Rohingya.
The navy source said Adm Surasak had instructed all navy personnel to refrain from using violence, abide by humanitarian principles and not to get involved in human trafficking.
The commander told sailors not to be disheartened by the accusation and continue with their duties, the source said.
The same source said Vice Adm Tharathorn Khachitsuwan, commander of the Third Region Navy, and Rear Adm Weeraphan Sukkon, commander of the Royal Navy Phang Nga Base, both believed the navy was being framed by Rohingya who were angry because the navy prevented them from coming ashore.
The navy can only provide humanitarian aid for the Muslim refugees and then push their boats back to sea because the government has no policy to set up additional temporary shelter for them, the source said.
“The sailors now have the job of cooking food for many Rohingya because each boat carries as many as 100 people,” another navy official told the Bangkok Post by telephone. “Once they’ve eaten, they’re pushed back to sea.”
If the Rohingya boats were broken, the navy would provide replacements. They cost 30,000 baht each, but a new boat is cheaper than caring for the asylum seekers during weeks of repair, the official said.
“Those who accuse the navy of hurting or killing the Rohingya should come out and take care of them too. They should not accuse others and not help” to look after the displaced people, the official said.
Defence ministry spokesman Col Thanathip Sawangsang said Thailand acts “on humanitarian principles,” providing food and water before allowing the boat people to continue south towards Malaysia.
The HRW report said the shooting took place as a group of Rohingya jumped from a boat, fearing they were about to be detained. Sailors fired warning shots into the air to try to get the men back in the boat, and then fired directly into the water.
“Rohingya fleeing Burma (Myanmar) should be given protection, not shot at,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Thai government should urgently investigate why sailors opened fire at boat people helpless in the sea and prosecute all those found responsible.”
The UN described Rohingya as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world. Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.
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