The government is under international pressure to punish officers who ordered a thousand Burmese Moslem refugees towed out to sea and abandoned in their boats last month. About a third of the refugees, from the Moslem Rohingya tribe, died. This all stems from a decision by the Burmese military government to not recognize the Rohingya as Burmese. This was partly because the tribe lived on Burmese/Bangladesh border, and partly because the Burmese are largely Buddhist, and have had problems with Moslems (who tend to be a lot more intolerant and aggressive when it comes to religion). Moreover, while most Burmese have an East Asian appearance, the Rohingya look like Indians. Criminal gangs in the area are selling places on boats, that attempt to sneak into Thai waters, where the Rohingya can claim asylum. The Thai coast guard and navy are determined to not be played by the smugglers, and are under pressure to prevent another flood of refugees.
For the last three decades, several hundred thousand Rohingya (out of a total population of some three million) have been fleeing into Bangladesh, but Bangladesh wouldn't take them, and forced many of them back into Burma. In the last few years, many Rohingya have been trying to get into Thailand, and then overland to Moslem Malaysia or Indonesia. In the last year, about 5,000 Rohingya tried to get into Thailand. The year before it was 3,000 and 1,500 in 2006. Given the years of Moslem terrorism in Thailands south, the army did not want thousands of Burmese Moslems wandering the length of the country trying to reach Malaysia. Just sending them to Malaysia would not work, since neither Malaysia nor Indonesia (nor any Moslem country, for that matter) was willing to take the Rohingya. So the army decided to use force. They put a thousand of the most recent refugees in boats and towed them out to where they might be picked up by the Bangladeshi or Indian coast guard. That happened, but not before many of the Rohingya died. Now there's a big national outcry against Thailand over this. Thailand has denied the charge, and will probably stonewall any attempts to prosecute the military. That's because the current government forced the elected government out with the cooperation of the military (who refused to disperse the mobs of opposition activists who sought to shut down the capital). The current government represents a minority of Thais (urbanites, royalists and businessmen) who need the loyalty of the military to stay in power.
There are nearly 150,000 refugees from Myanmar (Burma) in Thailand, nearly all of them from tribes that have been fighter the Burmese government for centuries. In addition, there are almost a million internal refugees in Burma, the result of fighting between the army and various rebellious tribes. There are about a quarter million Rohingya refugees. Some 28,000 are in camps in Bangladesh, another 200,000 live outside the camps in Bangladesh and the rest are in Thailand, where they are considered economic migrants, and thus illegal.
In the past, there have been some border clashes between Thai and Burmese troops, but the Burmese have tried real hard to avoid that of late, as the Thai troops are better, and Burma is a police state that has its hands full keeping all the unhappy groups under control.
Last year, Burmese troops began another offensive in the centuries old war between the coastal Burmese, and the interior tribes, in this case the Karen, living along the Thai border. Several hundred Karen people have fled to Thailand as a result. The army chases the Karen villagers from their crops and attempts to capture armed tribesmen. The Karen are frequently subject to forced labor for army run infrastructure projects (that make it easier for the government to control the mountainous jungles along the border.) These army operations have chased about 30,000 Karen from their homes over the last three years.
Fifteen months ago, there was an uprising by Buddhist clergy and civilians in Burma, but it was crushed. Some 200 people were killed and 3,000 arrested. A similar uprising in 1988 was also defeated, with even heavier casualties.
The Thai government, which long tolerated the Burmese military dictatorship, is now calling for a democratic government there. The Burmese generals keep promising elections, but have managed to delay actually doing it for decades. In light of the recent problem with the seaborne refugees, Thailand has persuaded Burma to improve its border security and prevent the Rohingya from getting to the coastal locations where the smuggling gangs land their boats. This will probably result in fewer calls from Thai officials for free elections in Burma.
Meanwhile, in the south, the Islamic violence continues to decline. About 3,500 have died in five years of violence. But the number of victims last year was the lowest since 2004. Moreover, the number of Islamic terrorists captured has greatly increased. Several key terrorist leaders have been arrested in the last six months, and this has apparently had a lot to do with the reduction in violence.
January 24, 2009: In the south, Islamic terrorists killed four construction workers on the site of a new bridge. Three other people were killed in separate incidents, some of the dead were apparently suspected of being police informants.