Pressure mounted on Thailand on Monday to come clean on allegations the army towed Rohingya refugees out to sea and abandoned them in engine-less boats, after CNN showed photographs depicting exactly that.
CNN said it obtained the pictures, taken a week ago, from somebody involved in an "on-going operation" by the army to tow Rohingyas out to sea. The source stressed the migrants were given adequate food and water before being abandoned.
Humanitarian groups have accused Thailand of systematically abusing the Muslim minority Rohingya.
"The NGOs are maybe trying to launch a campaign to put pressure on Thailand to open a refugee camp for the Rohingyas which, from our point of view, is not possible," Manat Kongpan, the colonel at the heart of persistent allegations of abuse against the Rohingya, told Reuters.
The allegations of abuse came after accounts emerged of a group of Rohingya being beaten before being towed back out to sea after being intercepted off Indonesia.
The cable news channel also interviewed a Rohingya caught on one remote island in the Andaman Sea, who said he had been on one of six boats carrying migrants that arrived in December.
The boats were towed back out to sea in January but five of them sank, the visibly distressed man said in a mixture of broken English and sign language.
"All men ... dead," the man, identified as Iqbal Hussein, said, corroborating other survivors' reports of boats cut adrift without engines and hundreds of migrants left to die.
"Push them out"
A government spokesman declined comment, but Army chief Anupong Paochinda appeared to outline a policy of giving Rohingya migrants food and water and then pushing them out to sea.
"Whatever we have done has been in line with acceptable practice. We have not killed them. If we wanted to do that, why did we give them food? It is within our right to push them out, since other countries also refuse to accept them," he said.
More than 230,000 Rohingya are now living a precarious, stateless existence in Bangladesh, having fled decades of persecution at the hands of Myanmar's Buddhist military rulers, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Tens of thousands more have left, often in rickety wooden boats, in search of a better life elsewhere. Many have ended up in Malaysia.
Rohingya rights groups and survivors who washed up on India's Andaman Islands and Aceh in Indonesia in the last four weeks say Thai security forces towed 992 migrants out to sea in December.
Of the 992, 550 are thought to be missing, feared drowned.
Myanmar refuses to recognise the Muslim Rohingya minority in western North Rakhine state as a distinct ethnic group.
Human rights activists say they have been abused and exploited, forcing many to flee abroad, mainly across the border to Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis leave the country aboard rickety boats each year in hopes of finding work, with many travelling to Thailand by sea and then overland to Malaysia.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised a full investigation. But he has also issued a blanket denial, on behalf of the military, of any abuse.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week it believed 126 other Rohingyas were still in Thai military custody, but it has got nowhere with a formal request lodged six days ago with the government to see them.
Last Mod: 26 Ocak 2009, 14:06
Fears are growing that they, too, might have been forced into boats and dumped at sea.
"We don't know where they are," UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said.