THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published — Saturday 23 February 2013
Last update 22 February 2013 9:50 pm
COLOMBO: Myanmar boat survivors rescued by Sri Lanka's navy last week say they floated for 25 days at sea and 97 people died of starvation after Thailand's navy intercepted them and forcibly removed their boat's engine. The Thai navy has denied the allegation.
Thirty-two men and a boy now detained at an immigration detention center near Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, were rescued last Saturday when their dilapidated wooden vessel began sinking while making a perilous journey to Malaysia.
All are Rohingya Muslims, but they do not want to return to Myanmar. The survivors were suffering from serious dehydration when they were rescued about 250 miles off Sri Lanka's east coast. The Sri Lanka navy said they were alerted to the sinking vessel by a fisherman.
"The journey was dangerous, but we had to do that ... as we fear for our lives, no jobs, and big fighting," one of the survivors, Shofiulla, told The Associated Press.
Sectarian violence in western Myanmar has killed hundreds of people and displaced 100,000 more since June. The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the Myanmar government does not recognize them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations. Shofiulla, 24, said 130 people were on the boat when the journey to Malaysia started on Jan. 10. Each had paid $ 465. After 10 days' travel, he said the boat reached the Thai border when two boats from the Thai navy intercepted them. Shofiulla said the sailors took their engine.
"Then we (had) no food, no rations ... no water. We drank only sea water," he said, adding the bodies of the 97 who died over the next 25 days were put into the sea.
Col. Thanathip Sawangsaeng, a Thailand Defense Ministry spokesman, denied the allegations.
"This is absolutely not true. The Thai Navy officers would have not done that," he said, adding that similar accusations have arisen in the past, including claims that the Thai Navy had abused the refugees. "The Royal Thai Navy commander has previously made it clear that the Thai officers have treated the boat people according to humanitarian principles."
“There are two approaches in handling the Rohingya: Giving them food and help before letting them carry on their sea journey or prosecute them for illegal entry,” he said.