Burma Detains Journalists Covering Boat People ‘Rescue’

By Esther Htusan 1 June 2015

BAY OF BENGAL — Burma’s navy briefly detained journalists who tried to reach a remote island Sunday where more than 700 migrants were being held after their giant wooden ship was found drifting off the country’s southwestern coast.

Some journalists were forced to hand over their camera memory cards or sign documents saying they would not try to make the journey again.

The wooden boat was one of more than a half-dozen that have either washed to Southeast Asian shores or been rescued in the last month following a massive, regional crackdown on human trafficking networks.

Around half of the 3,700 people to come ashore have been Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma, according to the UN Refugee Agency, and the remainder Bangladeshis escaping poverty.

Burma, however, has denied that Rohingya have been among the boat people, saying all have been from Bangladesh. It also has refused to shoulder the blame for a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

It insisted Sunday that all 727 people on board the ship recovered in the Bay of Bengal on Friday—including 74 women and 45 children—were Bangladeshi.

When journalists tried to reach Thameehla Island in small boats to see for themselves, they were either turned back or briefly detained and questioned by navy officials. Four Associated Press journalists were among those who were detained for about two hours before being released.

A navy commander at the base, who refused to give his name, told the AP that “we have safely rescued migrants from Bangladesh.”

He said they were brought inside a naval base compound, though the AP was able to see the ship tied to a naval vessel from the water and the tops of the heads of around 50 people still on board.

“We have given them food and medication,” the navy official said. “The doctors are taking care of them. We will send them back whenever they are safe.”