BANGKOK – Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has told the foreign press that Thailand has deployed the HTMS Angthong an Endurance-class landing platform dock ship in its waters to serve as a temporary medical and processing center for migrants found adrift.
The move came as the United States offered to launch reconnaissance flights over the Bay of Bengal to locate any remaining vessels, with thousands of Bangladeshi and Myanmar boat people still believed to be stranded at sea.
Thailand is hosting a May 29 regional meeting on a crisis that has seen more than 3,500 Bangladeshi economic migrants and stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar arrive on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil.
All three countries, as well as Myanmar and Bangladesh, have come under international pressure either to provide immediate humanitarian relief to the migrants or address the root causes of their journeys.
The HTMS Angthong will act as a “floating base with medics and police” on board, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters.
“If any boats (with migrants) are found, the navy will lead it to this large navy vessel for assistance,” he said adding Thailand will then “facilitate” their passage to “temporary shelters in Malaysia and Indonesia”.
“If anyone is injured or sick, they can be treated at hospitals in Thailand but will face illegal entry charges — it is up to them to decide.”
The UN estimates 2,000 migrants are still at sea on poorly supplied boats after a May 1 crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand paralyzed the route south, apparently leading people-smugglers to abandon ships crammed with human cargo.
The US embassy in Bangkok said America was “actively engaging with the governments of the region to obtain their support and permissions” for flights over the seas to spot stricken migrant boats.
Gen Prayut said Monday said he welcomed patrols from the US or any wanting to join Thailand in providing humanitarian aid to the boat people.
“But they must be under our chain of command because the operation is in our territory and they are required to work with our task force,” Gen Prayut said.
The Generals remarks follow the Royal Thai Air Force’s rejection this weekend of a US request to use Phuket as a base for patrols, according to a military source.
The source said the US asked to keep its maritime-surveillance aircraft in Phuket after the Guardian Sea antisubmarine-warfare training exercise ended on May 20. The military declined the request and asked the US to remove its aircraft and soldiers from Thailand by May 22.
The rejection reflects Thailand’s irritation over US pressure to clean up its human-trafficking problem, the source said.
Today, Malaysian police said they had found 139 grave sites and 28 abandoned detention camps used by people-smugglers in a border area close to where Thailand’s discovery of mass graves in May sparked the unraveling of trafficking routes.