abishitThai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has admitted that the kingdom’s authorities towed refugees from Myanmar out to sea, following weeks of allegations of cruelty against the migrants.

He told CNN in an interview broadcast yesterday that it was not yet clear who had approved the practice of setting minority Muslim Rohingya migrants adrift, but added that he was trying to find out.

‘All the authorities say that it’s not their policy but I have reason to believe that some instances of this have happened,’ he said, when asked who was behind the policy of towing the refugees out into the open ocean.

‘And if I can have the evidence as to exactly who did this, I will certainly bring them to account,’ he said.

He added that he regretted ‘any losses’ that the refugees may have suffered in their ordeals, but promised to do his best ‘to correct the situation’.

Hundreds of Rohingya have been rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters in recent weeks, some covered with welts.

They have said they were detained and beaten before being set adrift with few supplies by Thai security forces.

Rights groups fear that scores of Rohingya may have died. A photograph apparently showing the Thai navy towing refugees out to sea has been published in the media and similar images were shown by CNN yesterday.

One of the photographs shows a boatload of about 190 refugees being towed out to sea.

The CNN also reported a refugee as saying that he was one of the few Rohingya who had survived after six boats were towed out to sea and abandoned by the Thai authorities this month.

Mr Abhisit, however, dismissed the Rohingya’s claims that they are fleeing poverty and repression in military-ruled Myanmar, insisting that they were economic migrants who were posing a strain on Thailand.

‘I believe that at times when there is…a lot of pressure in terms of the numbers of these people coming in, there are attempts to try to let these people drift to other shores,’ he said.

‘The one thing that is clear is that when these procedures do occur, it is done on the understanding that there is enough food and water supplied.’

Many of the migrants have spoken of being set adrift with minimal food and water supplies.

Thailand had previously denied all allegations of cruelty but the issue has caused embarrassment for its fledgling government.

CNN reported one Thai military source as saying that Thai forces had a dump-at-sea policy. The source had defended such a policy and said that the military had given the refugees enough food and water.

The issue, which has made headlines globally in the past few months, is set to be discussed at an Asean summit in Thailand later this month.

Recently, actress Angelina Jolie joined the chorus of voices, calling on Thailand to respect the rights of the Rohingya.

She had visited Thailand last week as a United Nations goodwill ambassador and toured a northern camp for other refugees from Myanmar, where she asked Thailand to give the 111,000 refugees housed in nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border greater freedom of movement.

Her comments drew a sharp rebuke from Thai officials, who said ‘it was not her role to comment on the matter’.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS