By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian
Sunday, November 9, 2014
KAPER: The mystery of the disappearing boatpeople and a sudden, inexplicable change in ethnicity among would-be refugees is a puzzle of the kind that has often afflicted Thailand's Andaman coast. It happened again yesterday.
Early in the morning, 299 boatpeople were arrested by the Army's Internal Security Operations Command, working with local police in the province of Ranong. The Rohingya among the men, women and children totalled 219. The other 80 said they were from Bangladesh, according to officials.
By yesterday evening, the number being held in custody in a community hall in the township of Kaper had fallen to 252, with the other 47 boatpeople mysteriously disappearing. Nobody knew where they went. There appeared to be no great concern over the fate of the vanished boatpeople.
An even greater puzzle surrounded the declared ethnicities of the group. Within the space of a few hours, all those people who had previously said they were Rohingya or Bangladeshi were suddenly being recorded as Burmese.
This is not a miraculous conversion. Many times, boatpeople who land on the Andaman coast, north of the holiday island of Phuket, are declared to be Burmese, even though they can't even speak the appropriate language. This makes deportation easy. No further questions are necessary.
Phuketwan unravelled a little of the mystery yesterday during a brief visit inside the Kaper community hall, where the boatpeople who had not vanished over the course of a few hours yesterday were being processed by officials.
Large numbers of Ranong police, the Army, the Navy and officers from the Department of Human Security and Social Welfare helped in processing the boatpeople. Anti-human trafficking police from Bangkok looked on, too.
Each of the boatpeople had his fingerprints taken, then he was photographed. A group of investigators at trestle tables asked each man for details: name, age, parents, nationality. While responses to the first three questions varied, the answer provided by each translator to ''nationalty'' was the same: Burmese.
Just a few hours earlier, the ethnicities of these same people had been recorded as Rohingya and Bangladeshis. None of them were Burmese.
While the processing of the boatpeople in the Kaper community hall appeared to be efficient, it was certainly speedy. The questions took just a few seconds to answer.
As a result, all of the boatpeople will be treated as illegal immigrants, not human trafficking victims. Seven men arrested with the boatpeople will face court on charges relating to illegal migration, not as accused human traffickers.
Just 30 minutes' drive south from Kaper, in the neighboring province of Phang Nga, these boatpeople would have been handled differently. They would have been exhaustively questioned by volunteers and activists to determine whether or not they were genuine human trafficking victims.
Tomorrow, three men arrested recently with large groups of boatpeople close to the township of Takuapa will face human trafficking and abuse charges in a local court.
Volunteers and activists, led by the district chief officer, have decided it's time to end Thailand's farcical system so that the boatpeople are saved from abuse, rapes and death in the secret traffickers' camps of southern Thailand.
The difference in approach between what happens in Ranong and in Phang Nga is all down to lack of a budget to deal with human trafficking victims, Phuketwan was told several times yesterday.
And so there's the Catch 22 for human trafficking in Thailand.
Until the government acknowledges that there's a problem, there will be no budget to deal with possible human trafficking victims. And because there are at present no human trafficking victims, there is no problem, so there's no need for a budget.
The Muslims, Buddhist and Christian activists in Phang Nga who are now boldly defying the system represent Thailand's chance to deal with the issue truthfully, even if it comes at a financial cost.
Thailand's international reputation hinges on what happens in the two provinces north of Phuket over the next few days and weeks.