RANGOON – Four girls are missing after a boat carrying 17 schoolchildren between villages in Arakan State’s Rathedaung Township sank on Friday morning, according to a local man who participated in rescue efforts.
The ferry was traveling along the Khwae Dauk River from the village of Kon Zae Tan to Yan Aung Myin when it began to fill with water through holes in the lining, and due to wood that had rotted on the boat’s frame. Locals were able to rescue 13 of the students on board.
Normally, the small vessel carries around 10 passengers to school; Friday’s 17 exceeded the boat’s capacity. As water began to seep in, the children reportedly grew frightened, causing the operator to accelerate the ferry’s speed to reach the riverbank. The boat then capsized, said Soe Pe, one of the locals who watched the scene unfold.
Soe Pe said that a fisherman, Maung Aye, was repairing his boat near the riverbank when he witnessed the accident. Using his own boat, and working with the ferry operator, the two men were able to bring 13 of the 17 children to safety.
Among the four girls who have not been located is one 14-year-old, two 12-year-olds and one 11-year-old. The only adult on board was the operator, and the boat reportedly had only one life jacket.
“Some of them were able to swim, and that is why they are alive,” said Soe Pe of the children. “If not, I cannot imagine what could have happened there.”
The students from the village of Kon Zae Tan pay around 3,000 kyats (US$2.50) per month to cover ferry fees for the half-hour daily trip to school in Yan Aung Pyin village. Many small villages in Arakan State—including Kon Zae Tan—lack government schools at the middle and high school level, leaving students to travel long and often dangerous routes to continue their education beyond the primary level.
On Friday afternoon, the Arakan State Chief Minister, Nyi Pu, travelled by speedboat from the state capital of Sittwe to Rathedaung Township when he heard about the boating accident. He spoke with families who lost their children, according to posts on his official Facebook account.
Soe Pe explained that the residents of Kon Zae Tan and Yan Aung Myin villages are hoping that construction of a suspension bridge connecting their communities will improve transportation and safety in the region, but it is unclear whether the Arakan State government has allocated funds from the budget for such a project.
This boating accident is not the first such tragedy to occur in Arakan State this year. On June 1, the first day that Burmese schools resumed after a long holiday, seven children died when a boat capsized near Poe Shwe Pyin village outside of the town of Ponnagyun. As with the incident in Kon Zae Tan, the boat operator had carried a number of passengers exceeding the ferry’s capacity, and provided no life jackets on board, said Wai Hun Aung, an Arakanese social activist.
Wai Hun Aung said he believes that there is a correlation between weak management of government departments and such accidents. The operation of student ferries is not an enterprise open to just anyone—ambitious locals need to compete for a business tender designed by the township municipality. The bidders normally promise to follow the rules and regulations of the auction, but upon being awarded the tender, such expectations and conditions are known to be rarely enforced or adhered to.
He recommended that government initiate auctions for ferry operations with the condition that the “winning” businessmen provide a sufficient amount of life vests on board the boats, or be penalized. The government, Wai Hun Aung, added, should then actively enforce such requirements in order to minimize any carelessness on the part of the operators.
“I would like to urge the new civilian government to value the lives of the public. These children are the future of our country,” Wai Hun Aung said.
Home to an expanse of creeks, rivers and coastline, Arakan State’s transportation system is dominated by ferries, speedboats, and shipping routes. On March 13, 2015, the government-owned Aung Ta Kon (3) ship, running between Sittwe and Kyaukphyu, sank near the Naungdawgyi Sea in Myebon Township. The boat was overloaded with various goods and around 300 passengers. According to local publications, at least 160 people died in the accident; only 72 dead bodies were discovered. The Arakan State government has since suspended the route.