Children Missing as Mekong Ferry Sinks

By Patrick Boehler 3 September 2012

At least 17 children are presumed dead after a boat sunk on the Mekong River while crossing from Burma’s Shan State to China’s southwestern Yunnan Province on Sunday.

The vessel was carrying around 25 passengers when it capsized at 12:30 pm Chinese time due to overloading, reported Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency. It was travelling from Mali Village in northern Shan State towards Guanlei port five kilometers downstream in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan.

Eight passengers, of which seven were children, were rescued by civilians who witnessed the tragedy and rushed in two boats to help the victims. Yet by 6 pm Chinese time, 17 passengers, mostly children heading to the National Gate primary school in Guanlei, were unaccounted for, Xinhua reported.

People living on either side of the border can travel easily between the two countries by means of easily-acquired day passes. Many ethnic Chinese children living on the Burmese side of the border take advantage of better schooling in Yunnan.

“These people have no identity cards in Burma, they hold Chinese identity cards and are only on the [Burmese] side to plant rubber,” said one cargo ship captain with the Kunming-based Mekong International Shipping Company Ltd, in a microblog post on Sunday.

The victims were first and second year elementary school children from the riparian villages of Paduo and Naka who took the fatally overloaded ferry to register for school in China, the captain, who has worked on the Mekong for almost two decades, added. Monday was registration day at the Guomen primary school, he said.

According to the Xinhua report, the passengers were Burmese citizens. It also initially reported that those missing were Burmese sailors.

Guanlei, a sleepy town of 12,000, gained international prominence last December when it became the headquarters of a multinational security force against piracy on the Mekong. Two hundred security personnel equipped with three Chinese ships and one each from Burma and Laos began operating from the port, according to reports at the time.

In early August, the joint patrol force staffed by China, Burma, Laos and Thailand, launched its fifth mission since December trying to discourage smuggling and banditry on the river. It is not known whether these patrol boats participated in the rescue effort on Sunday.

Two days before the tragedy, China’s second-largest news agency China News Service reported that the border checkpoint in Guanlei had established a special work unit on Thursday to coordinate with shippers in order to guarantee the safety of the more than 200 children commuting daily from Burma to Guanlei.

“Because the number of new Burmese students is high, their age is low and the water levels of the Mekong are relatively high, ship navigation is exposed to real security risks,” the report stated.

By 10 pm Chinese time on Sunday, the border security forces in Guanlei said that they had dispatched a unit of 50 to continue the rescue efforts and console the victims’ family members. No more children have since been reported as rescued.