Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s racist slurs directed at the Rohingya are bad enough. But they are made even worse because they reflect the Thai government’s cruel policy toward Rohingya asylum seekers who take perilous journeys to escape persecution and serious abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
While presenting his new government’s policy statement to parliament on July 25, Prayuth said: “Speaking of the Rohingya, I am sympathetic. But their looks, their appearance is very different from us. If you can accept to have more of these people in Thailand, that is up to you.”
Thai authorities have for years said they do not want to accept Rohingya asylum seekers, and the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), chaired by Prayuth, stops them with a three-step action plan.
Under the action plan, the Thai navy can intercept Rohingya boats nearing the coast, and provide fuel, food, water, and other supplies if the boat’s occupants agree to travel onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Any boat that lands on Thai shores is seized. Thailand treats all Rohingya as illegal immigrants, subject to indefinite detention in squalid immigration and police lockups, and refuses to let the United Nations refugee agency conduct refugee status determinations for them.
But under customary international law, Thailand cannot summarily reject asylum claims at the border. It is obligated to allow Rohingya asylum seekers to enter the country and seek protection.
Thailand’s inhumane “push-back” policy for new boat arrivals should be scrapped immediately. As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand should lead efforts to set up a regional preparedness and protection mechanism for Rohingya asylum seekers in collaboration with sympathetic countries and relevant United Nations agencies. In particular, Thailand should grant the United Nations refugee agency unhindered access to conduct refugee status determination interviews for all Rohingya arriving in Thailand.
Prayuth should understand the best way to reduce future asylum seekers is to pressure Myanmar to end its human rights violations against the Rohingya. Still, successive Thai governments have failed to speak up. By continuing to disregard their plight, Thailand places its reputation at risk while doing nothing to stem the exodus of desperate Rohingya. Thailand should urgently change its approach if it seeks a leadership role in finding a regional solution for the Rohingya crisis.