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Home > Publications > Quill > Global Toolbox - May/June 2010


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Monday, May 31, 2010
Global Toolbox - May/June 2010

The boat people of

By Bruce C. Swaffield

A team of reporters was recognized recently for writing about the plight of the boat people in western Myanmar.

But the news was not so much about the Human Rights Press Award, which was presented in Hong Kong in April. In this case, the real news is the story itself.

For decades, the Rohingya have suffered persecution because of their religion; they are practicing Muslims in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. In order to survive, they have repeatedly set out to sea from towns along the Bay of Bengal seeking sanctuary in neighboring countries, Bangladesh and Thailand.

They are known literally as boat people. They also could be called the forgotten people, for no one wants them, let alone helps them. Many sources say the nation of Myanmar does not count them as citizens. Even the United Nations has neglected them.

For several years, five journalists (working for Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post) have been reporting on the boat people, hoping the world soon will do something to help these refugees who either have been held captive, often in classified locations, or taken out to international waters and left to die in their overcrowded boats.

According to the Morning Post, “The team of Alan Morison, Chutima Sidasathian and Maseeh Rahman, former international editor Ian Young and chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode won the general news prize for exposing a secret Thai army policy of detaining Rohingya boatpeople from Myanmar (Burma), towing them to sea and abandoning them.” Numerous accounts also tell about hundreds of the people who have been held captive on a “secret island.”

This is how Morison explained the team’s efforts to me in an e-mail:

“It’s an interesting story. A while before we discovered the secret island, we asked the Royal Thai Navy if we could go with them on the lookout for boatpeople. They were not keen to have us, but ... they sent us a series of incredible photographs of boatpeople being arrested and made to lay prone on beaches.

“We were astonished, and published the photos on Phuketwan straight away. However, at that point Phuketwan was not being picked up by Google News, so we had this great set of shots that nobody knew about. So we knew when we went looking for the island that we had to find an alternative to get the word out, and we turned to the SCMP because I’d done work for them in the aftermath of the tsunami.

“The Thais were highly suspicious of the Rohingya story because it appeared in the SCMP, and they figured in some parts of the media that it was planted by deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra to discredit the current government. After finding the island and learning enough to write the story about the secret new policy of ‘exporting’ refugees, Ian Young assigned chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode to come to Thailand to see the island himself and to interview the Army colonel in charge.

“At that stage we feared repercussions. Maseeh was able to confirm the story from India, where survivors of one boatload were rescued at sea. So it was remarkable in the manner in which we cooperated from country to country to break the full account. We simply persevered. I knew there had been almost 5,000 arrivals of Rohingya in Thailand the previous sailing season and wondered what was happening in season 2008-2009.

“Chutima, being a great reporter, was able to find out from sources within the uniformed forces that the Internal Security Operations Command of the Army was up to something, and our trip to the island and answers from villagers confirmed the covert operation. Sadly, the first group of boatpeople who arrived after the exposure remains in detention in Thailand. They were initially kept in appalling conditions — two teenagers died in custody. The colonel in charge of the detention centre told us lies. He said they were content and healthy ... we had no way in.

“When the two teenagers died, the Rohingya were transferred to a better detention centre, where they remain in custody still ... and the message to others remains plain: ‘Don’t come to Thailand.’ The process of interception of boatpeople off the Andaman coast remains secret still. We did hear of one boatload recently of 93 who were ‘helped’ on their way to Malaysia, although the Navy denies having any involvement. So sadly, we remain frustrated that while more people are now aware of the plight of the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh, our report did little to solve the issue. Governments in this part of the world remain blind to abuse.”

A great story from a great team of journalists. They did their job, and now it is our turn to tell the rest of the world what is happening. You also can express your personal concerns to Mr. António Guterres, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, at antonio.guterres@unhcr.org.

Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He holds a B.S. from Kent State University and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Miami. In addition to working as a professional journalist for many years in South Florida, Swaffield has been teaching journalism and writing since 1983. He is a member of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and may be contacted at brucswa@regent.edu.

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