By Nathan Vanderklippe for The Globe and Mail
A warm breeze blew under clear skies Monday night as a small group of Chinese dissidents boarded a yacht in Pattaya, a popular beach destination in Thailand.
They were not on a tourist ride. They were trying to escape.
They piloted the boat south, steeling themselves for a long voyage ahead – perhaps to Australia, nearly 5,000 kilometres away, or New Zealand, 10,000 kilometres distant.
But the dangers at sea, they felt, paled beside the risk of staying in Thailand, where each of them – democracy activists, rights defenders, Falun Gong practitioners and children – feared deportation back to China, and persecution by authorities there. In recent months, others have already been rounded up and sent back.
“Chinese refugees in Thailand all feel a real sense of danger,” said Zhang Wei, 47, a Chinese investor who had championed democracy rights. Unable to quickly secure legal resettlement to other countries as political refugees, they have now turned to other means.
“We are trying every way possible to attempt to leave the country.”
But just 26 hours after leaving Pattaya, they were back on Thai soil, their hopes of escape crushed by a furious storm that damaged their boat and pushed them back to shore, where they were picked up local police.
Now, five members of the group fear deportation. Thai police discovered four held expired visas. A fifth, democracy activist Li Xiaolong, who had been the boat’s captain, is being held for human smuggling.
Each of the nine hold protection letters from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But that document has proven scant protection for Chinese dissidents in Thailand. In recent months, at least two writers have been captured by men believed to be Chinese agents, and smuggled to China. Thai authorities have arrested and deported others, including two men sent back to China after Canada agreed to resettle them.
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