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194 more Myanmar boat people rescued off Indonesia

Indonesia's navy rescues the refugees, believed to be minority Muslims from Myanmar. Human rights activists say ethnic Rohingya have been set adrift by the Thai military to deny them sanctuary.

February 04, 2009|Paul Watson

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Indonesia's navy rescued almost 200 refugees believed to be minority Muslims from Myanmar who human rights activists say were beaten and set adrift in the open sea by the Thai military as they attempted to find sanctuary.

At least 194 people plucked from a drifting wooden boat off the island of Sumatra were being brought to the regency of East Aceh on Tuesday evening, said Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. An initial report that 198 refugees had been found proved incorrect, he added.

Faizasyah said an unknown number of the rescued migrants were ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, where the ruling generals have been accused for years of oppressing the Rohingya.

"We still don't know the details [of] how they got here," the spokesman said, adding that officials were expected to speak with the migrants today.

In the last month, persistent reports citing survivors, foreign witnesses and even Thai military sources have said that a flotilla of boats carrying as many as 1,200 Rohingya was set adrift by the Thai military in December.

Several survivors rescued in recent weeks have said they were detained, tied up and towed out to sea without fuel, according to numerous reports by news media and human rights groups.

Hundreds of the migrants are feared dead, but more than 700 have been found off the coasts of Indonesia and India in recent weeks. The rescue announced Tuesday raised hopes that others would be found before they die of hunger, thirst or the elements.

Authorities in Thailand deny there is a systematic effort to block Rohingya boat people from Thai waters. But mounting evidence of abuse is embarrassing to new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power on a promise to bring political stability and reform to his beleaguered country.

The latest rescue was eerily similar to the discovery of 174 Rohingya on Jan. 7 off the coast of Sumatra, in a boat without an engine, food or drinking water. The refugees' accounts of abuse by the Thai military were consistent with those from other reports.

Indonesia's government said Friday that the Rohingya were economic migrants, not persecuted people in need of protection, and vowed to return them to Myanmar. Indonesian authorities have refused to let most journalists speak with the migrants.

The Rohingya come from Arakan state in northwestern Myanmar, also known as Burma, which has been ruled by a military regime since 1962.

Amnesty International says the junta routinely denies the Rohingya citizenship rights, restricts their freedom of movement and persecutes them in various other ways, such as destroying their homes.

Those who can scrape together enough money to pay human traffickers to escape Myanmar often head for Malaysia, where thousands of Rohingya have found jobs. But thousands more suffer hardship and abuses in countries throughout the region.

In 2007, Human Rights Watch said authorities in neighboring Bangladesh, a mainly Muslim country, had mistreated Rohingya refugees, forcing many to seek sanctuary in more distant countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia.

More than 6,000 Rohingya had been living with minimal support in a cramped, makeshift camp near Bangladesh's border with Myanmar. But the refugees dispersed when officials ordered the 3-year-old camp leveled, according to Human Rights Watch.

They were among tens of thousands of Myanmar refugees living in Bangladesh, the New York-based group said in its 2007 report.

"Abuses by Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies are reported to be widespread in and around Rohingya refugee camps, including reports of sexual violence against women," the group said.

"In the two official refugee camps of Nayapara and Kutupalong, people are routinely punished for traveling outside the camp to find food or money and often must resort to selling meager rations to corrupt camp officials or outside merchants."

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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