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Myanmar migrants, shunned by Malaysia, spotted adrift in ocean

400 fleeing strife, part of brutal exodus

Hundreds of migrants were seen on a boat drifting about 10 miles off the coast of Thailand.Reuters

IN THE ANDAMAN SEA OFF THAILAND — A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred migrants from Myanmar was spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea on Thursday, part of an exodus in which thousands of people have taken to the sea in recent weeks but no country has been willing to take them in.

Cries of “Please help us! I have no water!” rose from the boat as a vessel carrying journalists approached. “Please give me water!”

The green-and-red fishing boat, packed with men, women, and children squatting on the deck with only tarps strung up to protect them from the sun, was turned away by Malaysian authorities on Wednesday, the passengers said.


The passengers said 400 migrants were aboard the boat, which was north of the Malaysian island of Langkawi and west of the Thai mainland. At least 160 people were visible above deck.

Women and children wailed as the boat with journalists approached.

“Myanmar refugees! Myanmar refugees!” a man who gave his name as Selim yelled to a reporter.

The passengers said that they had been on the boat for three months, that 10 of them had died during the voyage, and that their bodies had been thrown overboard.

They said that the boat’s captain and five crew members had abandoned them six days ago.

An estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh are adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca, many believed to have been abandoned by their traffickers with little food or water.

Their presence has created a regionwide crisis in Southeast Asia. Most were thought to be headed to Malaysia, but after more than 1,500 migrants came ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week, both countries declared their intention to turn away any more boats carrying migrants. Thai officials have not articulated an official policy since the crisis began, but Thailand is not known to have allowed any of the migrants to land there.


On Thursday afternoon, a Thai navy speedboat arrived near the migrant boat in the Andaman Sea.

“We want to watch them from afar,” said Lieutenant Commander Veerapong Nakprasit, who was on the Thai boat. “We will help them fix their engine. Their intention is to go to Malaysia. They have entered illegally.”

Chris Lewa, the coordinator of the Arakan Project, which monitors trafficking in the Andaman Sea, had been in sporadic contact with the boat for the past several days. The passengers, who shared one mobile phone, told her that they had no water and food and requested help.

Lewa said families of the passengers told her the boat left waters off Myanmar around March 1. The passengers paid or agreed to pay to be taken to Malaysia, she said, and other vessels linked to the traffickers had delivered food and water to the boat during the journey until the crew abandoned it.

The boat here flew a tattered black flag on a makeshift bamboo mast with the words, in English, “We are Myanmar Rohingya.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that has faced violent attacks by radical Buddhists in Myanmar and official discrimination by the government, which does not consider them citizens.

More than 1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, and more than 100,000 have fled in recent years.