Thailand has promised to investigate allegations government troops had set adrift hundreds of Muslim Rohingya boat people on the high seas. Many of the illegal immigrants may have drowned. The call by Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came during a meeting with human-rights groups.
Mr. Abhisit promised the investigations would get underway after reports Thai security forces had abused hundreds of ethnic Rohingya who had landed in Thailand and who later forced them back into the open seas.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Mr. Abhisit had called on government agencies to provide a report on the circumstances surrounding the Rohingya boat people. He said the government's policy was aimed at setting a balance between humanitarian concerns and the country's security needs.
"The policy of course is to make sure that the issue of illegal migration is to be based on two principles - one is of course is the individual's status and rights and the other one of course is national security and the rights of the Thai people," he said. "The policy, of course, is aiming to balance the two."
Panitan said those officials who had breached the guidelines "would be dealt with accordingly."
Earlier, Thailand's Foreign Ministry said it would also launch an investigation into the reports and reassess the overall situation of illegal immigrants.
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told the media Monday the government took the allegations of abuses against the Rohingya boat people "seriously" and planned to meet the ambassadors from Bangladesh, India, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Human rights groups said more than 500 Rohingya boat people and Bangladeshi migrants landed in Thailand in December and were later forced back into the open seas. They say most are still missing.
Survivors, hundreds of which were rescued by Indian authorities, complained they had been set adrift with only a few days supply of food and water. Those who survived were all severely dehydrated.
The Thai navy has denied the allegations it pushed the boat people back into the seas, saying the allegations "had no substance."
Somchai Homla-or, chair of the Campaign Committee for Human Rights, attended Monday's meeting. He welcomed the government's response as previous governments had failed to address the human rights issues of Rohingya.
"The issue of Rohingya and what we have heard they are treated badly for years, especially by the past government," he said. "We hope that this issue will be solved by this government as some of the other human rights violations."
Sally Thompson, a director with the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium, an agency working with Burmese refugees, said the boat loads of Rohingya were often linked to human trafficking gangs operating out of Bangladesh.
"We've been seeing this pattern now for about three years, where this time of the year we've been aware that there are boat loads of people making their way down to Malaysia and that some of them have ended up in Southern Thailand around Ranong, Phang Na and Phuket," she said.
Refugee workers say Rohingya mostly travel to Malaysia to find work. Among Malaysia's 36,000 refugees registered with the United High Commission for Refugees, more than 12,000 were members of Burma's Rohingya Muslim minority.