RAYONG – Thailand’s Marine Police have reported that at least 12 Burmese migrant workers drowned off Thailand’s southwestern coast this weekend when boats smuggling them from Kawthaung, Burma’s southernmost town in Tenasserim Division, to Ranong sank.
The bodies of nine Burmese nationals — six men and three women — were found floating near Koh Chang and Koh Phayam, two islands off the coast of Ranong Province, on Sunday, Thai newspaper The Bangkok Post reported. Three more bodies were reportedly found floating in the area on Saturday.
Niran Chuayjit, an inspector of Thailand’s Marine Police Division 8, told the newspaper that 38 Burmese nationals were rescued by Thai authorities on Saturday, adding that they are being detained in Ranong town for illegal entry. Those who died at sea are believed to be illegal migrants as they lacked proper travel documents, Thai officials said.
Sources in Burma told The Irrawaddy that four boats smuggling dozens of migrant workers had attempted to cross the estuary of Kra Buri, a tidal river that separates Burma’s Kauwthang Township and Thailand’s Ranong Province, on Friday night.
Two vessels made a safe landing on the Thai coast, but another was discovered by Thai border guard forces, according to a local man with close connections to the Kawthaung Police. The vessel sailed away in the night and it is unclear what happened to it, he said, adding that the boat might have sunk due stormy weather.
“Thai security gave a signal to the boat to stop [for inspection]. But, it didn’t stop and tried to sail away. And the weather was very bad,” said the source, who declined to be named.
Earlier on Friday night, a fourth boat carrying 41 Burmese migrants sank while making the crossing, but Thai authorities spotted the migrants holding on to parts of the vessel and rescued 38, according to the local source. Three who were on board are believed to have drowned.
Burmese police in Kawthaung confirmed that a group of migrant workers had drowned over the weekend, but officers declined to discuss details of the accidents. “Many migrants are still using the old tactic of crossing the Thai-Burma border illegally by boats, with the help of smugglers,” said an officer.
He added thata Burmese anti-human trafficking team in Kawthaung, led by police officer Lon Ling, was investigating the case and questioning a detained man who had steered one of the boats smuggling the workers.
Kawthaung is one of the main border crossing points used by Burmese migrant workers to enter neighboring Thailand in search of work. Local residents have said that perhaps as many as 500 workers cross into Ranong Province illegally every day.
Despite recent anti-human trafficking campaigns in Burma, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers continue to enter Thailand — often with the help of people’s smugglers — in search of a better livelihood.
The illegal entry is fraught with danger, and accidents or incidents involving Thai border guard forces are common. In April 2008, 54 Burmese migrant workers suffocated to death in a container truck, while they were being smuggled from Ranong to the Thai resort island of Phuket.
The governments of Thailand and Burma have been trying for several years to jointly come up with a way of regulating the illicit flow of migrant labor and providing official identity papers to the more than 2 million Burmese workers in Thailand.
These attempts have produced few results however, and most Burmese workers say that they are still forced to rely on underground channels and bribe-paying to gain entry and employment in Thailand. – By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY