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The Thai navy will deploy a landing-platform dock ship in the Andaman Sea to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants found adrift as a complement to air patrols by the United States.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters the 4.9-billion-baht (US$163 million) HTMS Ang Thong will serve as a “floating base with medics and police” on board. The vessel, commissioned in 2012, has a displacement of 7,500 tonnes, can carry a crew of 390 and is equipped with a sick bay, a minor-operation room and dentistry suite.
“If any [migrant] boats are found, the navy will lead them to this large navy vessel for assistance,” AFP quoted the general as saying. Thailand will then “facilitate” the boat people’s passage to “temporary shelters in Malaysia and Indonesia”.
Thailand received considerable criticism last week after Foreign Minister Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn declined to join an agreement with his Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts to offer temporary refuge to the thousands of Rohingya Muslim and Bangladeshi migrants still afloat. Gen. Prayut has held firm to his position that Thailand would offer only humanitarian aid before sending migrant boats on to a third country.
On Monday, the prime minister said that if any of those found in Thai waters were sick or injured, “they can be treated at hospitals in Thailand. But they will face illegal-entry charges. It is up to them to decide.”
Thailand’s move to deploy a relief ship came as the US offered to launch reconnaissance flights over the Bay of Bengal to locate any remaining vessels.
Gen. Prayut said on Monday that he welcomed patrols from the US or any country 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 premier’s 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 20 May. The military declined the request and asked the US to remove its aircraft and soldiers from Thailand by 22 May.
The rejection reflects Thailand’s irritation over US pressure to clean up its human-trafficking problem, the source said.
Thailand is hosting a 29 May regional meeting on the crisis, which has seen more than 3,500 Bangladeshi economic migrants and stateless Rohingya Muslims from Burma [Myanmar] arrive on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil.
All three countries, as well as Burma 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 UN estimates 2,000 migrants are still at sea on poorly supplied boats after a 1 May crackdown in Thailand paralysed 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 he ordered the air force to patrol the Andaman Sea from today. The navy will then deploy the Ang Thong, helicopters and personnel who can identify the migrants’ nationalities.
Navy chief Adm. Kraisorn Chansuwanich said part of Phuket airport, which is used by the navy, would be used as a base to provide land base for the operation. He added that two Dornier patrol planes and a second ship would take part in the operation.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 25 May 2015.