Thai Authorities Scupper MOAS SE Asia Mission

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) mission has been torpedoed by Thai Authorities who have prevented the transfer of drones which were vital to the research mission.

MY Phoenix in the Andaman sea, off the coast of Phuket, Thailand. Photo: Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.eu

MY Phoenix in the Andaman sea, off the coast of Phuket, Thailand. Photo: Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.eu

The search and rescue NGO moved it’s flagship MY Phoenix to South East Asia in September in anticipation of the sailing season which typically sees thousands of Rohingya flee persecution in Myanmar and embark on a perilous weeks-long journey to Thailand or Malaysia.

The plan was for the Phoenix to launch a mission off Thailand in which it would make use of remotely operated helicopters to scour large stretches of sea and develop an assessment of human trafficking and carry out search and rescue when needed.

But Thai authorities put spokes in the wheels when it came to relesing the all imporant drones, without which the sea mission would have been severely handicapped, due to the vast stretch of ocean navigated by trafficking ships.

In comments to The Guardian, MOAS founder Chris Catrambone said: “We cleared it with the ministry of defence, the Royal Thai Navy, the transportation ministry and the prime minister’s office… (but) every single aspect of the process was disrupted”.

A Thai Navy vessel approaches the MY Phoenix off the coast of Ranong, Thailand. Photo: Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.eu

A Thai Navy vessel approaches the MY Phoenix off the coast of Ranong, Thailand. Photo: Mathieu Willcocks/MOAS.eu

The drones were blocked by customs for weeks on end, despite several reassurances that the equipment would be released.

This year, movement of people from Myanmar subsided due to a crackdown on smugglers in Thailand which coincided with the election of Myanmar’s first civilian government in 50 years – a landmark that brought new hope to Rohingya that their situation might improve soon as a result.

However, MOAS intended running a survey mission to explore the trafficking situation in seas that have never been surveyed by a non-State actor. The sea mission was conceived in conjunction with research on the ground in Myanmar and Bangladesh by Migrant Report.

The approaching rainy season, which is expected to start towards the middle of May this year, forced the crew to abandon the mission.

“We couldn’t wait any more for the drones. Its a matter of the monsoon season starting. We would be wasting our time,” Catrambone told The Guardian newspaper.

MOAS rescue in the Aegean. Photo: Jason Florio/ MOAS.eu

MOAS rescue in the Aegean. Photo: Jason Florio/ MOAS.eu

The MOAS team, particularly the Thai partners it worked with to transfer the drones, had been put under surveillance.

“We tried to go along as best we could until all our people were scared away,” Catrambone said, adding that a man working for them in Bangkok said he was followed.

He said the Thai agent working on clearing the drones through customs suddenly told the charity that she would stop working with them. “Basically she dumped us,” he said. “We don’t know if she was pressured.

“It’s wrong what they did to us. Our paper trail goes back six months. We have dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s. We have done everything.”

Most of the estimated 1million Muslim Rohingya are stateless in their own country as they are not recognised by Myanmar as citizens. Following an eruption of violence between Rohingya and Burmese nationalists in Rakhine state, most Rohingya ended up in IDP camps or exclusion zones that inhibit their freedom of movement and in most cases access to the most basic services.

Despite the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in a spectacular landslide which brought to an end 50 years of military rule, change does not seem to be round the corner for these persecuted people.