- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

RANONG, Thailand

A Thai court Wednesday convicted 66 barefoot, disheveled migrants detained at sea of illegally entering the country, raising the prospect they could be sent back to Myanmar despite fears they would be persecuted there.

A Ranong provincial court judge sentenced each defendant to five days in prison after none of them was able to pay a 1,000 baht ($30) fine. Four were brought to the court from the hospital, one carried by two men because his legs were broken.

The Thai navy detained the Rohingya migrants Monday after their rickety boat was found adrift in the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s southwestern coast. The Thai government contends that the migrants do not qualify for refugee status, and a police official said they could be expelled after they served their sentence.

“Please kill me here if you are going to send me back,” migrant Kamal Hussein begged in an interview with the Associated Press. “If I go back, there is no land, no food, no safety. The [Myanmar] junta hates us.”

Mr. Hussein, 28, was among 78 migrants on the boat. Twelve minors were being held separately because they are too young to be tried, said Ranong police Col. Weerasilp Kwanseng.

Mr. Hussein, from Myanmar’s coastal city of Sittwe, said that before they were picked up by the Thais, their boat was stopped by the Myanmar navy. He said the Myanmar sailors beat him and others and took their food away.

When the sailors left, they told the refugees, “Go to die wherever you want to go,” he said.

The plight of the Rohingyas - a stateless, Muslim ethnic group who fled persecution in Myanmar, also known as Burma - was highlighted earlier this month after accusations that some of them had been abused by Thai authorities. Human rights groups say the Thai navy has twice intercepted boats filled with hundreds of Rohingyas and sent them back to sea, where hundreds later died.

Thai authorities have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, insisting they only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally.

The Foreign Ministry said Thailand faces an “enormous burden” because of 3 million illegal migrants currently in the country.

Human rights agencies and the U.S. government have long asserted that the Rohingyas face gross discrimination and are denied citizenship in their homeland of Myanmar because they are Muslims. Military-ruled Myanmar, which is about 90 percent Buddhist, has been criticized for years by human rights groups for mistreatment of ethnic minorities.

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