The Thai government will shelter Rohingya: Another empty gesture for ASEAN’s forgotten victims

Prayut offers shelter to the Rohingya, but the empty offer provides little meaningful assistance.

By Oliver Ward

The Thai Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-ocha, announced at the end of August that the Thai government was making preparations to receive Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar.

“Thailand’s defence ministry and security are preparing to receive various displaced people,” he said, “we will provide them with shelter like in the past… and send them back when they are ready”.

He gave no more indication of what those preparations would entail besides offering shelter; but based on how previous governments had dealt with the refugees, the Rohingya should not set their expectations too high.

Thailand offered shelter in the past but only added to the Rohingya’s suffering

Prayut mentioned that Thailand had provided shelter to the Rohingya in the past. However, the treatment they received in Thailand was little better than that in Myanmar. In 2008, many Rohingya used Thailand as a transit state to enter Malaysia, but once Malaysia refused to register the refugees, many found themselves stranded in Thailand.

The Thai response was less than welcoming. Then Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej proposed sending the refugees to a detention centre on a deserted Thai island. Although the proposal never came to fruition, the policies the Thai government did choose to pursue were no less ruthless.

They implemented a “pushing out” policy in response to the refugee crisis, whereby officials loaded the Rohingya refugees up in boats, towed them to international waters and cut them adrift. The refugees had limited food and water and were left drifting in the ocean for days.

Even in recent years, the Rohingya have suffered at the hands of Thai governments. The Abhisit government arbitrarily detained the Rohingya refugees and deported them whenever they could.

Will Prayut treat them any differently?

Legally, Prayut has no obligation to protect the Rohingya. Thailand did not sign the 1951 UN Status of Refugees Convention and therefore has no obligation to assist and shelter the refugees.

The Thai government does not legally regard the Rohingya as refugees and offers them no rights as migrant workers. What kind of life is Prayut offering them? The Rohingya cannot work legally in Thailand. There are also no guarantees that their living conditions will be any better in Thailand, and any attempt to reach Thai soil will be fraught with danger.

There is not even an assurance that the Rohingya will be able to stay in Thailand until it is safe to return home. The Thai government is already sending Rohingya back and organising deportations despite the recent attacks which killed 109 people. Myanmar is not yet safe for the Rohingya people, yet the Thai government deported 71 people last October and is currently making plans to send another 247 back soon.

There will be no red carpets rolled out for Rohingya. The Thai government needs to reconsider the status it gives to the Rohingya people before it can offer any meaningful assistance. The government is not offering a safe place for the Rohingya to live and work in with dignity. It is offering yet more uncertainty and a similar struggle for survival, never knowing when the Thai authorities will send them back to the horror they fled from.