EDITORIAL Utter despair in detention
Published: 24/08/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
The heart-rending tale of the Rohingya refugees continues, each chapter seemingly more tragic than what went before. Two new developments in the sad story have appeared in the media. The deaths of two teenagers in a Ranong province lockup appear to be senseless, and many times worse because they were preventable. And the trial begins this week of a Malaysian customs policeman allegedly involved in an actual slavery ring selling Rohingya at the Thai border. Arguably the worst part of these sordid reports in this newspaper is that top officials in Thailand and neighbouring countries remain silent.
According to doctors, 18-year-old Abdul Salam died on June 30 after he had been held in the immigration detention centre at Ranong. Then, on Aug 13, Hammatula died inside the centre. Abdul was found near death in his cell and died on his way to hospital. Hammatula died alone and unattended, apparently without any medical care. The doctors responsible to the Immigration Department say that the cause of death was cardiac arrest _ which simply means their hearts stopped. This is a well-known catch-phrase used when authorities are unwilling or unable to determine why someone has died.
But in fact authorities have told this newspaper that the two teenagers died of despair. Arrested last January by the Thai navy, they were sent to the immigration lockup where their lives came to an end _ figuratively at that time, literally after months in the lockup. Like many who wind up in the nightmare of the immigration lockup, Abdul and Hammatula gave up on life. They did not eat, did not exercise. They felt, undoubtedly correctly, that they had nothing to look forward to.
Ironically, the group of 78 Rohingya sent to the immigration lockup were supposed to be an example of Thai government compassion. Jolted by foreign news reports of shocking mistreatment of the Muslim refugees and job seekers, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was forced to step in when it appeared that the group would be set adrift at sea, as had many others. But the immigration lockup for the Rohingya is arguably worse than having their boat pushed into the South China Sea.
The Burmese dictators refuse to recognise the Rohingya as citizens. Because of the Kafkaesque immigration law, Rohingya cannot be repatriated, and therefore cannot be freed.
Mr Abhisit, who promised humane and sympathetic treatment for detained Rohingya, did little more than defend the military from charges of brutal treatment of the Rohingya. The unbelievably cruel decision by the Burmese generals to strip the Rohingya of their birthright means that these men could spend the rest of their lives in the Ranong province detention centre. Two, in fact, already have.
In Malaysia, senior immigration office Rahman Selamat faces charges of what amounts to slavery. Allegedly, he detained a Rohingya man, then took him to the Thai border where he was sold to a human trafficking gang for 600 ringgit, less than 6,000 baht. The gang supposedly intended to sell him into slavery to a fishing boat captain.
The Thai and Malaysian governments have been terribly remiss in these and many other cases. Those at the top, Prime Minister Abhisit included, must realise that they are responsible for the health and welfare of detainees. By taking away the freedom of immigrants, the government assumes an obligation to protect them. The Rohingya, who have done nothing wrong except to be poor and abused by their government, deserve a better fate.