PHUKET– A boat carrying about 74 asylum seekers from Myanmar’s beleaguered Rohingya minority has been found adrift in the Andaman Sea off the Thai resort of Phuket. Their 10-metre vessel is now anchored in front of Koh Bon in Muang district, which is about three kilometers from Rawai beach.
Authorities including police from Chalong station and immigration police were alerted by a tourist boat about the ship.
Arun Sophos, the Tambon Rawai Municipality chief, said all of the Rohingya were in poor condition as they had run out of water and food three days ago. The Rohingya included 40 men, 20 children and 14 women.
One of the Rohingya said they set off on their journey on two boats on Dec 19 from Rakhine State with Malaysia as their destination.
A storm and big waves had separated them near Langkawi Island in Malaysia and their ship lost direction and unintentionally entered Thai waters, he added.
The municipality gave them food and fuel, and contacted the police and the navy to prepare to push them back to the sea as they insisted on going to Malaysia, Mr Arun said.
Thai navy, police, health and other officials supplied medicine and food and water to the asylum seekers, along with fuel for the boat so it could continue its journey without landing in Thailand. Thai policy is to not accept boat people but to aid them in reaching a third country.
The exodus of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, where many are also confined to refugee camps, has become seasonal, peaking in December and January. Their fate became an international issue in 2008-2009, when predominantly Buddhist Thailand towed broken-down boats crammed with refugees back to sea, where they were cast adrift. Hundreds are believed to have died when the boats later sank.
The latest batch of asylum seekers told officials they had been at sea for 13 days and were headed for Malaysia, Thailand’s southern neighbour. Malaysia is seen as a welcoming destination because its own Muslim population is dominant, though it too considers the Rohingya undesirable.
On Sunday, about 450 asylum seekers from Myanmar landed in Malaysia after a similar boat journey that left one dead, a man who tried to swim to shore.
It was one of the largest groups of Rohingya this past year to reach Malaysia, where about 25,000 Rohingya are registered with the U.N. refugee agency.
The U.N. estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and most are denied citizenship.
Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Myanmar. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and heavily discriminated against. But Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.