Rohingya Survivors Say They Floated at Sea for 25 Days

By Bharatha Mallawarachi 23 February 2013

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—Burma boat survivors rescued by Sri Lanka’s navy last week say they floated for 25 days at sea and 97 people died of starvation after Thailand’s navy intercepted them and forcibly removed their boat’s engine. The Thai navy has denied the allegation.

Thirty-two men and a boy now detained at an immigration detention center near Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, were rescued last Saturday when their dilapidated wooden vessel began sinking while making a perilous journey to Malaysia.

All are Rohingya Muslims who are regarded as illegal immigrants in Burma from Bangladesh, and say they do not want to return to Burma.

The survivors were suffering from serious dehydration when they were rescued about 250 miles off Sri Lanka’s east coast. The Sri Lanka navy said they were alerted to the sinking vessel by a fisherman.

“The journey was dangerous, but we had to do that … as we fear for our lives, no jobs, and big fighting,” one of the survivors, Shofiulla, told AP.

Sectarian violence in western Burma has killed hundreds of people and displaced 100,000 more since June. The Muslim Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Burma, which is mostly Buddhist. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are heavily discriminated against.

The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Burma at 800,000, but the Burma government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Most are denied citizenship and have no passports, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.

Shofiulla, 24, said 130 people were on the boat when the journey to Malaysia started on Jan. 10. Each had paid $465.

After 10 days’ travel, he said the boat reached the Thai border when two boats from the Thai navy intercepted them. Shofiulla said the sailors took their engine.

“Then we (had) no food, no rations … no water. We drank only sea water,” he said, adding the bodies of the 97 who died over the next 25 days were put into the sea.

Col. Thanathip Sawangsaeng, a Thailand Defense Ministry spokesman, denied the allegations.

“This is absolutely not true. The Thai Navy officers would have not done that,” he said, adding that similar accusations have arisen in the past, including claims that the Thai Navy had abused the refugees. “The Royal Thai Navy commander has previously made it clear that the Thai officers have treated the boat people according to humanitarian principles.” “There are two approaches in handling the Rohingya: giving them food and help before letting them carry on their sea journey or prosecute them for illegal entry. However, it’s not possible that the Thai Navy would have done what they were alleged of doing.”

The Thai army said last month that two senior officers had been suspended pending investigations into alleged involvement in trafficking Rohingya people fromBurma into other countries.

Shofiulla said he is a second-year student studying micro-biology, but that his university was closed last July after the fighting erupted. “We can’t go back to our country … our government kills Muslims… we are afraid to go back. We want to go to a safe place,” said Shofiulla, who appeared to be the only English-speaking person in the group.

He said they wanted to go to Malaysia to find jobs, following in the footsteps of others from his village. He added 25 people were in the detention center while eight were still in hospital.

Sri Lanka’s Immigration and Emigration Controller Chulananda Perera said his department has informed the Burma embassy, seeking their cooperation in identifying the survivors to begin the process of sending them back but had not received a response.

There was no immediate comment from the Burma embassy in Colombo.