PATTANI, Thailand — The three conflict-ridden provinces of Thailand’s Deep South are not a popular destination for many visitors. A renewed and intensifying insurgency, which has killed more than 5,300 people since 2004, provides a daily diet of military check-points, assassinations and bombings.
But for Sakir Husan, 18, and other ethnic Rohingya fleeing sectarian violence in Burma’s Arakan State, the region is proving a welcome escape from the nightmares of their lives back home. Husan is part of a 22-strong group—18 men and four women—currently being housed in the capital of Pattani Province since Jan. 16.
They are among hundreds of Rohingya who have landed on the shores of southern Thailand this month and then been dispersed across the country by the authorities. But in contrast to the frosty reception Rohingya have often received from the Thai state, which has been criticized by human rights groups for previously returning them to sea or overland to Burma, the group in Pattani has received the warmest of welcomes from the local—predominantly Malay-Muslim—population.
“I am happy to be here—and that everybody has been so kind,” a visibly drained Husan tells The Irrawaddy through a translator, surrounded by local well-wishers. The 18-year-old, wearing a small prayer cap and longyi, says he felt he had little choice but to leave his home—and parents—behind in the Arakan State capital Sittwe.
“Before we left our homeland, we felt like we would be killed. So we decided to take our chances at sea, and maybe we can survive,” he explains. Husan says the group spent 20 days at sea in a boat packed with 143 people, surviving by drinking rain and seawater and never giving up hope.
“Some people were in the depths of the boat, others had no energy, but we eventually made it,” he adds.
He was separated from his brother on arrival in Thailand, and has not heard from him since. Although he has a cousin in the group in Pattani, the trauma of being apart from his family is taking its toll: “Even though I’m here, my heart misses my parents—they are still in Burma, they could not leave.”
In an apparent show of Muslim solidarity, scores of locals have been flocking daily to the government building in Pattani where they are being housed to meet the Rohingyas and donate everyday essentials. Among the items piling up at the center are sacks of rice, noodles, biscuits, canned food, water, eggs, toiletries and mats to sleep on.
“I want to donate—we are all brothers so we have to help,” says Medina Adulyarat, 22, a Pattani local who came to donate items, comfort the refugees and talk to them through translators.
Although both the Rohingya in Burma and elements of the Malay-Muslim population in Thailand’s Deep South are involved in varying degrees of conflict with their respective neighboring Buddhist communities, locals in Pattani deny this is the basis for their sympathy and support.
“The situations are very different,” says Shakira Haji Marwan, a local education worker donating detergent, soap and toothbrushes. “The Burmese government doesn’t even recognize them as citizens, while here Malay-Muslims are at least recognized as part of the Thai nation state.”
For Marwan, the compassion being shown is simply human. “We pity them because from what we know they were treated badly in Burma—not as human beings but as animals. So as a Muslim, when I know Rohingyas are here, I try to help [with] what I can. Most Muslim people here, when they heard what had been happening to them in Burma, they prayed to God for their protection.”
The group in Pattani are being temporarily housed in an office of the Thai government’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. The space is so small some of the men are sleeping outdoors under tarpaulins. It is unclear how long they will be there.
The government is still deciding how to deal with the latest arrivals of Rohingya—numbering as many as 4,000 in the last three months. State agencies were meeting on Jan. 25 ahead of forthcoming discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). NGOs have been pushing for unfettered access to the Rohingya, with some success. Staff from the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been visiting them across the country, including in the Deep South, to check on living conditions, help establish contact with their relatives back in Arakan State and provide basic basic necessities.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, wants the government to formulate a consistent and more humane policy towards the Rohingya. He tells The Irrawaddy that Thai people across the country have shown remarkable and admirable support for the migrants—and that the authorities should follow their example.
“In the past the Rohingya have been classified as a security threat. Recent weeks shows nothing could be further from the truth—these people come with nothing. So the Thai government should do the right thing,” he says.
The Thai Supreme Commander, Gen Tanasak Patimaprogorn, has called on the international community to provide more assistance for the refugees. But Robertson says stemming the flood of Rohingya to the shores of southern Thailand requires like-minded Southeast Asian nations to put more pressure on the Burmese government to grant them full citizenship and end their stateless plight. “It just has to stop: that’s what the message needs to be,” he says.
Meanwhile, the recent mass arrivals of Rohingya in Thailand have focused the spotlight on the smuggling of refugees from Burma and the possible role of the Thai Army in the process. The country’s Anti-Human Trafficking Center, part of the Department of Special Investigations, said this week an investigation into the wave of Rohingya migrants arriving in southern Thailand found they were not victims of organized mass human trafficking. But The Bangkok Post reports that police are probing two military officers attached to the powerful Internal Security Operations Command who are suspected of involvement in the smuggling of Rohingya. The pair, holding the rank of sublieutenant and major, are being investigated by an Army panel, according to the newspaper.
Rohingya migrant Sakir Husan says he paid nobody to board the boat fleeing Arakan and was not aware of Army involvement in his journey. He told The Irrawaddy he has only one request of the Thai authorities: “I just don’t want to go back to Burma.”