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The tragic story of Burma’s boatpeople is now known the world over; countless Rohingya Muslims pay brokers to transport them by boat to neighbouring countries, in a desperate attempt to escape poverty and violence. Many die on harsh seas, others fall into the hands of human traffickers. The United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of people in the region — many of them stateless Rohingya Muslims — risked their lives to flee by boat since just the start of this year.
But this story goes back much, much further. Before Burma’s reforms began and steered the world’s attention to the once-isolated Southeast Asian nation, and before a rash of riots beginning in June 2012 caused a sudden, mass exodus of Rohingyas, people were already fleeing and someone was paying attention.
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian (known by her nickname, Oi) run a small, online news website based in Phuket, Thailand. As editor and reporter, respectively, they are currently the entire staff of Phuketwan. Morison and Chutima were among the first journalists to report on Rohingya asylum seekers crossing the Andaman Sea en route to Malaysia. They became known as a consistent and trustworthy source of information on the obscure topic, and hence were often contracted by international media to assist with reporting.
Their years of reporting and assisting other journalists were relatively unhindered until July 2013, when they published an article quoting excerpts from a Reuters investigative report about the smuggling of Rohingyas. The Royal Thai Navy brought defamation charges against the pair, who now face up to seven years in jail. Their trial will begin in March 2015, and Morison, an Australian, is bound to remain in-country on a criminal visa until a verdict is reached. His visa status could cause the publication to shut down.
Reuters, a London-based news agency, is not facing charges over the disputed content and has been silent about the case against Phuketwan. To make matters more awkward, news soon emerged that Chutima was hired by Reuters to facilitate parts of their investigation, which was recently awarded one of journalism’s highest honours: a Pulitzer Prize.
Some speculate that the pair is being singled out and punished for their work, which ultimately helped to bring this horrendous story of abuse and neglect into the global conscience. DVB spoke with Morison and Chutima about their work, their charges, and the responsibilities of a free and professional press.
Q: Before Reuters reached out to you, Phuketwan was already well known for breaking the story of Thailand’s ‘push back’ policy, a short-lived directive to send asylum seekers back to sea with no assistance. How did this story come about?
CS: We were doing an interview with a commander in 2008. We asked if there were any concerns about security in the Andaman Sea, and he mentioned the Rohingya. After that, we decided to come back. I tried to ask for permission from the Thai navy to get on the patrol boats, because I wanted to know more about the Rohingya. But they wouldn’t give me permission.
Some months later, the Navy, after I pushed them very hard, they sent me a picture. They said, ‘Ok, here’s a picture of the Rohingyas that we arrested yesterday at Surin Island.’ It was a picture of them laid out on the beach. And I thought, ‘Jeez, this is a very good story!’
I went to my university, one of my friends — he is an officer — he also knew about the Rohingya. He’s the one I started the investigation with. He said he saw that they have a new policy to deal with the Rohingya by the Internal Security Operations Command [ISOC, a unit of the Thai military]. So any police station that had any Rohingyas in their custody had to transfer them all to the ISOC in Ranong province. So we just went to Ranong and we scanned every area. This side, that side, the top of that mountain, whatever.
Several days later, we found a kitty boat, a Rohingya boat, in a village. The people there told us, ‘This is from the Rohingya’, so we checked it out. We found that the boat had stopped at Red Sand Island.
Q: Before that time, were you aware that there was a problem of Rohingya smuggling?
CS: No, no, we weren’t aware of smuggling, but I had read some information on the Internet about violence in Burma, and that they [Rohingyas] weren’t citizens.
At the time, we wanted to send a message back to their families because nobody was covering this, and many people were drowning on these boats. You know, the high sea, the monsoon, many people ended up dead.
Q: So those that do make it to Thailand, what happens to them?
AM: There were about 2,000 Rohingyas in detention here for quite some time. After the discovery of women and children on the boats [in January 2013], Thailand changed its policy and, for a time, took Rohingya into detention centres. About six months later they found that they couldn’t find a solution. They had to somehow get rid of these people quietly, without too much attention.
That’s when they started the practice of ‘soft deportation’.
All of Thailand’s intentions to do right by those people just fell by the wayside; they couldn’t find a third country, in the end they didn’t know what to do with them so they developed the policy of soft deportation, and they all just disappeared.
Oi and I spent a night up in Ranong because we had been told by somebody that a convoy [of detained Rohingyas about to be deported via land crossing] was coming. We were waiting for these buses to turn up, I think there were three buses, and sure enough it was Rohingya who had been captured down south and trucked up to the Ranong immigration detention centre.
We were there when the buses arrived in the middle of the night, around 2am. They had to be fingerprinted and go through all the normal checks, and treated as Burmese would be who are being deported. But with the Rohingya it’s a little bit different, they don’t actually go back to Burma, they drop them off on the beach.
Q: Is there no documentation of these deportations?
AM: There would be, in Ranong. There would be a record that they’d all been sent back to Burma, but they’re just left on a beach.
A ‘soft deportation’, I would say, is dropping people off at a beach in Burma and either letting human traffickers pick them up or leaving them to their own devices, rather than handing them back to officials.
Q: Subsequent investigations have concluded that some asylum seekers are intercepted by human traffickers, who keep them captive in jungle camps and demand ransom for their passage to Malaysia. Have you been to any of these camps?
AM: Oi has. She’s raided some of the camps, but I think they seldom find any people in them because the word gets around and the locations are shifted. What we’ve heard lately is that the camps are now becoming less accessible to everybody and guarded by more people. They have the guards further out so no one can get in. It’s more difficult these days for the authorities to get at them, as well.
Q: You’ve clearly been very active on these issues. Phuketwan reported consistently on the arrival of the boats in January 2013, which you mentioned a moment ago. Has the lawsuit affected your ability to carry out your work?
CS: It has burned a lot of energy; it takes up a lot of our time.
But also, the military is involved in every issue in Thailand. It [the lawsuit] makes things difficult, because I still have to report what happens, what’s going on. I can’t avoid them, because they are in charge of the country. There are some officers that just intimidate us. It’s not that all of them are bad, but just some.
Q: In April, a Reuters spokesperson told DVB that your role in the agency’s investigation was ‘very limited’. How, exactly, were you involved in the Reuters investigation?
CS: They emailed Alan because they were looking for someone who was working on the Rohingya issue. I was working for them as a fixer, and they used all my material, all my contacts. I accompanied them for parts of the investigation.
Q: What do you think about how Reuters has reacted to your case?
CS: They ignored me [laughs]. I’m very disappointed. Very disappointed. They should stand for the principle of support for the press and for free media in Thailand.
AM: The way Khun Oi’s role as fixer was dismissed by Reuters was a disgrace, unbecoming behaviour from Pulitzer Prize-winners. Oi worked with Jason [Szep] twice, I believe. All the other international teams she has worked with haven’t been so reluctant to recognise that Khun Oi’s contacts on the Rohingya saga in Thailand, built up over the years, allowed them to quickly get to the people involved.
Reuters have let the little guys take the rap. It’s their 41 words, not ours. But they are nowhere to be seen. We have enormous amounts of support from every rights group and media body with even the vaguest interest in the case, except for Reuters.