The plight of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group has been a chronic serious human rights problem. Some of the Rohingya fled religious and ethnic suppression in Myanmar to southern Thailand on boats. Thailand has done very little to help this ethnic minority. In fact, there have been reports of human rights violations by the Thai authorities against the Rohingya people.
Most of the Thai mainstream media usually report about the Rohingya only when a large group are arrested for illegally entering the southern provinces of Thailand or when Rohingya detainees escape the detention camps, but they rarely report what happens to the refugees after that. They tend to reproduce without question the claims of the Thai authorities who say that they treat the Rohingya refugees humanely,
Phuketwan, an English-language news website based in the touristic island of Phuket, is one Thai media outlet which has closely followed the Rohingya issue. They produce original reports and also report what the foreign media say. Phuketwan has won several international human rights awards for their investigative reporting on the Rohingya refugees.
On 17 July 2013, Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian published a report quoting from a Reuters article “Special Report: Thai authorities implicated in Rohingya Muslim smuggling network,” which accused Thai naval forces of earning 2,000 baht per Rohingya for cooperating with human traffickers in Phang Nga, a southern province north of Phuket. This month the special report by Reuters won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
The Thai Navy, instead of investigating the accusations, sued Morison and Chutima for criminal defamation and under the Computer Crime Act, for defaming the Thai Navy and publicising false information in a computer system. If found guilty, they could face up to five years and a 100,000 baht fine.
The case has been put before the court and the two have been released on bail. The Navy recently said they would pursue the case with Reuters who produced the original content.
iLaw, an internet-based NGO for amending Thai laws, interviewed Morison and Chutima. The interview was translated and edited by Prachatai.
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian Photo by ilaw
How have you been after being sued?
Alan: There was lots of tension. Some of our staff left the office. I think they left because they were afraid and they weren't keen to be journalists anymore and we understand that.
Chutima: We have less time to work because we have to dedicate time to prepare the case. We have to prepare documents, meet the police and prosecutors. It also affects us emotionally. Before we were sued, we were able to report on about 10 stories a day. Now, we can report on only 1-2 stories a day. We can’t concentrate as much on our work. We see the case against us as injustice.
How do you feel to have entered the Thai judicial process as a suspect/defendant?
Chutima: We feel awful and shocked at what has happened to us. We’re confident that we’re innocent. We have worked very hard and always been in the field. We think that the Reuters report is credible. People cite Reuters. We feel shocked and disappointed at what we’re facing.
Have you been more careful or practiced self-censorship after facing the charges?
Alan: After we were charged, instead of self-censorship, we should be more frank and more open about saying what exactly is happening and we would be more direct in the way we do stories.
Chutima : Our reporting is still the same. We don’t avoid [issues.] The number of stories, however, has decreased.
Do you think the case will create a climate of fear among other media and society?
Chutima: I think this will create a climate of fear among media who report about these issues. They will be more cautious and may avoid reporting this issue because it may create difficulties in their lives.
What’s the situation of Rohingya refugees in the South of Thailand?
Alan: It really should not happen. The Burmese push the Rohingya into the sea, forcing them to leave the country and Thailand has to deal with that issue. Thailand tries to keep all options open, relies on secrecy and keeps the issue as quiet as possible. We believe this issue is internationally important so we wrote about it.
Chutima: The Rohingya people are stateless. In the past, few people knew about them, but now more and more people know about the Rohingya. The problem of the Rohingya people, however, has not yet been solved, and has become more severe. The Thai government has never had a clear policy on the Rohingya refugees. Given that we have followed this issue closely since 2008, we believe human trafficking gangs are involved. We don’t believe that the Rohingya can move from place to place without anyone involved.
Apart from this controversial news story that led to the charge, what other reports have you written on the Rohingya?
Chutima: We’ve reported about the arrests of Rohingya people who illegally entered Thailand, about Rohingya who fled the camps and were beaten, and about attempts by the Immigration Police to force them back to Myanmar but then back to the camps again. We’ve also reported about the human trafficking gangs that bought Rohingya refugees to work on fishing boats and plantations, and to send to Malaysia. Some Rohingya women were bought to get married.
On your website, what do reports on the human trafficking of the Rohingya people tell society?
Alan: People around the world are aware that Burma is turning to democracy but are not aware of the intolerance within Burma. What happens in Thailand is really a by-product of what happens in Burma. Thailand is an innocent party to the real cause of the problem. So we try to make the point that it is difficult to be a democracy with racism. The Rohingya were persecuted for no good reason, persecuted because they were Muslims in a Buddhist country. The world needs to know about Burma.