Thai police use water cannon on Rohingya asylum seekers

A Rohingya Muslim illegal immigrant looks out from the Immigration Detention Centre during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kanchanaburi province on 10 July 2013. (Reuters)

Thai police used water cannon to prevent scores of Muslim Rohingya boat people from breaking out of a detention centre to celebrate the end of Ramadan, officials said Thursday.

Some 261 Rohingya asylum seekers broke the locks on two rooms and then tried to storm the centre’s secure front door in southern Phang Nga province, where many have been held for months, police told AFP.

“Officials blocked them at the ground floor and are negotiating with them… but they still want to come out and refuse to go back to the rooms,” according to provincial police chief Chalit Kaewyarat.

He said police fired water cannon through the gated front door to prevent the refugees, who are all men, leaving and “to calm them down”.

“We will wait until they are calm before moving them (temporarily) to police stations,” he added.

A local official requesting anonymity confirmed the incident, adding the Rohingya men want to come out “for prayers for Hari Raya” – as the festival of Eid, marking the end of the Muslim holy month, is known locally.

Police said they would allow five of the detainees out at a time “but all of them still want to leave” prompting the angry standoff.

Many of the asylum-seekers have been locked up in the overcrowded and reportedly insanitary centre for several months, prompting rights groups to call for their release.

Thousands of Muslim Rohingya boat people — including women and children — have fled the former junta-ruled country since Buddhist-Muslim clashes a year ago in in western Burma’s Arakan state.

Those who arrived in Thailand have been “helped on” by the kingdom’s navy towards Malaysia – their destination of choice – or detained as illegal immigrants.

Thailand initially said the asylum-seekers would be allowed to stay for six months while the government worked with the UN refugee agency UNHCR to try to find other countries willing to accept them.

But overseas help has not been forthcoming so far, leaving the refugees in limbo, and separated from their families.

A UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the centres were not designed to hold “so many people for so long”.

“While the motives for this incident are still unclear, it reflects the growing frustration among the Rohingya being held in detention,” she said.

Tan urged Thai authorities to “urgently” transfer them to shelters that will allow families to be reunited and provide “greater freedom of movement”.
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