(New York) – Sailors from Thailand’s navy shot at ethnic Rohingya “boat people,” causing at least two deaths, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai government should immediately investigate the incident, and direct the navy to abide by international standards on the use of force.
On February 22, 2013, Thai sailors near a pier in Phang Nga province fired on a group of about 20 Rohingya asylum seekers who had been in navy custody since the previous day, when their boat with about 130 on board had run out of fuel on its journey from Burma to Malaysia.
“Rohingya fleeing Burma should be given protection, not shot at,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai government should urgently investigate why sailors opened fire at boat people helpless in the sea and prosecute all those found responsible.”
Survivors told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of February 21, Thai fishermen helped their drifting boat ashore on Surin Island off the coast of Phang Nga province. On that same day, at about 6:30 p.m., a Thai navy patrol boat numbered TOR214 arrived at the island and towed their boat back to the sea. Navy patrol boat TOR214 and the Rohingya boat arrived near a pier in Kuraburi district of Phang Nga province at around 5 a.m. the next morning. According to the survivors and Thai villagers on the shore, navy personnel from the patrol boat began to divide the Rohingya into small groups in the boat and ordered them to get ready to board smaller boats. At that point, the Rohingya became uncertain whether they would be taken to immigration detention on the mainland or be pushed back to the sea. When the first group of 20 Rohingya was put on a smaller boat by the Thai navy, some panicked and jumped overboard.
“Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water.”
Four Rohingya who swam to the shore were rescued by local Thai villagers. Thai security forces searched the area for two days after the incident, but the villagers kept the survivors hidden.
The bodies of two Rohingya showing bullet wounds were later pulled from the sea and buried in a Muslim cemetery in Kuraburi district. Thai fishermen told Human Rights Watch they saw more dead bodies in the water but had no more information. The fate of the remaining passengers on the boat remains unknown after it was towed away by the Thai navy.
Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government and the National Human Rights Commission to conduct thorough and transparent investigations into the shooting. If unnecessary or excessive force is found to have been used, all those responsible, including officers who gave orders to fire, should be prosecuted.
Thai security forces, when performing law enforcement duties, should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles provide that law enforcement officials shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, they must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
The Basic Principles also provide that the government shall ensure that superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known that personnel under their command have resorted to the unlawful use of firearms, and they “did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use.”
The Thai authorities should also reveal the whereabouts of the remaining Rohingya from the boat, who were last seen in navy custody, and provide unfettered access for investigators to those survivors. The government should grant at least temporary protection to those survivors, permit the office of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to them, and ensure that none of the survivors are deported or otherwise subject to abuse while investigations are conducted. The government should also provide humanitarian assistance to the survivors and ensure that appropriate compensation is paid to the families of those who died.
Each year tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya in Burma’s Arakan State set sail to flee persecution by the Burmese government and dire poverty. The situation significantly worsened in 2012 following communal violence in Arakan State in June and October targeting Rohingya and other Muslim groups.
The so-called “help on” policy of the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has failed to provide Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law, and in some cases increases their risk. Under this policy, the Thai navy is under orders to intercept Rohingya boats that come too close to the Thai coast. Upon intercepting a boat, officials are supposed to provide the boat with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition that the boats sail onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. All passengers must remain on their own boats during the re-supply operation.
Enforcement actions to strictly implement this policy have apparently intensified after the Thai government came under domestic and international pressure to provide temporary, six-month protection for more than 1,700 Rohingya who arrived in Thailand since January 2013.
“The Thai government should scrap its ‘push back’ and ‘help on’ policies that deny Rohingya boat people their right to seek asylum,” Adams said.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of “nonrefoulement” – not to return anyone to places where their life or freedom would be at risk. In this regard, UNHCR has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all Rohingya boat arrivals would help the Thai government determine who is entitled to refugee status.
“The Thai government should help the oppressed Rohingya from Burma, not worsen their plight,” Adams said. “Thailand should immediately grant the UN refugee agency unhindered access to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”