The following story was seen in The Age today. Read it through and then if you want, read through my thoughts below that...
Burmese asylum seekers recount sea horrors
Tom Allard, Jakarta
February 4, 2009 The Age Newspaper
BURMESE asylum seekers have described a harrowing ordeal at sea before their rescue by the Indonesian Navy yesterday.
Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers said 20 of the 218 on their vessel died from starvation after being towed out to sea by the Thai military.
They have told Indonesian authorities their rickety wooden boat was one of nine vessels towed back out to sea, stripped of engines and left to drift after initially making landfall on the west coast of Thailand about a month ago. According to their account, as many as 1800 Rohingya - twice the initial estimates - were set adrift with meagre rations of food and water.
Thailand's alleged mistreatment of the asylum seekers has become an international scandal, despite denials by the Thai Government of any wrongdoing.
The boat was intercepted on Monday afternoon in the Strait of Malacca, 68 nautical miles from the east coast of Aceh, Indonesia's northernmost province on the tip of the island of Sumatra.
"Their condition was very poor when we found them. They said they had run out of food," said Lieutenant Jul, the Indonesian Navy spokesman from the Idi Rayeuk sea post in Banda Aceh.
"They said originally they were about 220, but 20 died on the sea. The total of them now is 198 people. (They died) because of not enough food."
Some of the survivors bore scars, which they alleged were caused by beatings from Thai security forces. All of them - males ranging in age from 13-50 - were emaciated and many had been hospitalised after their arrival in Aceh.
The 12-metre boat was in extremely poor condition, held together by rope.
Lieutenant Jul told The Age that the account of the journey had been provided by the only Malay speaker on board, a 37-year-old man. Malay is similar to Bahasa Indonesian.
The man had told them that nine boats in all had been taken out to sea by Thai authorities. Each boat had "around 200" people on board.
"They don't know where the other boats are," Lieutenant Jul said.
It appears one of the boats had previously made landfall in Aceh last month, while another was picked up by the Indian Navy near the Andaman Islands.
The fate of the other boats is unknown and aid groups fear that hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned or starved to death.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority from the western Burmese province of Arakan and neighbouring Bangladesh. Many have fled Burma to Bangladesh, where 28,000 have registered as refugees with the United Nations.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans last year said they lived in "conditions described by some humanitarian agencies as the worst they have ever seen".
Other Rohingya pay people smugglers to transport them by boat from Burma to Malaysia via the Thai coastline.
The Thai foreign ministry did not return calls yesterday but, in a press release issued on January 23, obliquely acknowledged the forced removal of the Rohingya asylum seekers back to sea.
"It is estimated that up to 20,000 illegal Rohingya migrants have entered Thailand over the years and remain within the kingdom - as distinguished from recent arrivals, of whom none presently remain in Thailand," the statement read.
Four days later, it issued another press release with a highly qualified denial of mistreatment as international outrage mounted about the disabling of the Rohingya boats. "This must be categorically denied as having no place in policy and procedures," the statement said, adding the military would be investigating the claims.
The Burmese junta has flatly denied the Rohingya actually exist, while both Thailand and Indonesia have previously described them as "economic migrants".
As if asylum seekers didn't have it tough enough already. They make it to the shores of a land they hope will provide a better existence than they had in their homeland. They leave everything and cram themselves on a boat in horrific conditions. They have usually paid a fortune to get onto the boat in the first place which took all sorts of sacrifice. And then, when they arrive in Thailand, their engine is taken from their boat and they are towed out to sea! To drift, and most likely to die. On this latest occasion, at least 20 have died.
It is a tragedy. If only the Australian government had a remotely helpful policy for asylum seekers. Then I could stand boldly and offer to help so many desperate people in our world who need us. A thought pops into my mind. It is a little strange. As a soldier I sit through so many sermons and conferences teaching me and encouraging me to find people in need, and to bring them to my corps. We look around and wonder why our corps is not filled with people and get excited when we pull a crowd of 50 or 60 to a youth event. And then we read that a boat load of people were left to drift and die. If only we had been taught how to find these people and bring them to our corps???
Well, I will try to find a way. Let's research our country's policy on asylum seekers. Let's find a way to support asylum seekers who are already in our country (about 5000 people) who have access to...nothing except your generosity. Let's find a way to support more asylum seekers. Why? Because they are not getting on the Loveboat for a 30 day cruise! They are fleeing their country and they need our help!
Think about it and contact me if you want to do something about it.