Rights group lashes out as Malaysia turns away 2 boats
OFF KOH LIPE, THAILAND
MALAYSIA turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants while one boat turned up yesterday in Thai waters, as critics accused South-east Asian governments of playing a game of "human ping pong" with the lives of desperate boat people.
Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships bearing desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are flooding into South-east Asia, triggering warnings that the hardline approach could endanger thousands at sea.
A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya - a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar - was found drifting in Thai waters.
"About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water," one migrant shouted in Rohingya to a boat full of journalists.
"We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia, but we have not reached there yet."
Many young children were among the visibly weak-looking passengers on the boat, which was found near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea.
The United Nations refugee agency and rights groups say that thousands of men, women and children are believed to be stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.
Regional governments have faced mounting calls to urgently launch search and rescue operations rather than drive off boats, and to come up with a coordinated strategy for handling the influx.
But Malaysian patrol ships intercepted two migrant vessels beginning late on Wednesday off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. They carried a total of 600 people, the official added.
Rights groups say Thailand - which has called for a May 29 regional meeting on the issue - also has a policy of not allowing such boats to berth.
"The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Malaysia refused to budge yesterday, with Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar putting blame for the problem squarely in the laps of the migrants' home countries.
"Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people," Dr Wan Junaidi told Agence France-Presse.
"So, that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive."