Swap places with boat migrants, Thai PM tells critics

AFP , Thursday 21 May 2015

Thailand's junta chief Thursday said those who felt his government should do more to help stranded boatpeople should "migrate" to sea themselves and swap places with them.

The comments from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha came as Bangkok was criticised for not following Indonesia and Malaysia in agreeing on Wednesday to accept stranded migrants.

"Anyone who supports this idea (of accepting boatpeople), please contribute one baht a day or take them to your home when their case has been processed," the former army chief, who took over in a coup a year ago, told lawmakers during a speech on the budget.

"Or you migrate out to the sea and bring them to live here instead," he added.

In the past 10 days, nearly 3,000 Myanmar Rohingyas and Bangladeshis have been rescued or swum to shore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Several thousand more are believed to be trapped on boats at sea with little food or water in a crisis sparked by smugglers abandoning their human cargo after a Thai crackdown on human-trafficking routes.

Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand had sparked growing international outrage by driving off boats overloaded with exhausted migrants.

But after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Malaysia and Indonesia softened their stance, saying they would take in migrants for a year, or until they can be resettled or repatriated with the help of international agencies.

In a further step Malaysia Thursday ordered a search and rescue mission to look for stranded migrants.

Thailand, which was at the meeting, did not sign up to the initiative, a decision ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights described Thursday as a "colossal failure of regional leadership".

But Prayut defended Thailand's policy towards migrants, saying the country was already home to more than 900,000 refugees from decades of regional turmoil.

The mercurial former army chief is known for his abrasive speaking style and his comments follow vicious attacks on social media against allowing boatpeople into the country.

In his remarks on Thursday to the National Legislative Assembly he said Thai soldiers get a smaller food allowance than detained migrants.

"Thai soldiers get a food allowance of 20 baht (59 cents) a day, but these people (detained migrants) get more than 70 baht," he said, adding there were "a lot of problems" caused by their needs such as having to slaughter their own meat -- a reference to halal food.

Thailand has for years played a key role in the people smuggling route that starts in western Myanmar and Bangladesh with migrants trafficked through its southern provinces into neighbouring Malaysia.

Rights groups have long accused Thai officials of turning a blind eye to the trade, and complicity in it.

But Prayut insists his government is the first to finally get serious about eradicating people trafficking and smuggling.

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