02/26/2013, 00.00
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Abandoned by Thai Navy, 97 Rohingya die of hunger and starvation in the open sea

by Nirmala Carvalho
The victims were part of a group of 130 people who had fled from Myanmar due to sectarian violence. The 33 survivors rescued by the Sri Lankan Navy after 25 days adrift. A Thai navy vessel had intercepted the refugees and seized the boats engine, then abandoning them in the open sea. Bangkok denies the charges.

Delhi (AsiaNews) - 97 Burmese Rohingya, who fled sectarian and ethnic violence that inflame the State of Rakhine, have died of hunger and exhaustion after being left adrift for at least 25 days at sea without any assistance. The drama of this tragedy was revealed by the 33 survivors who managed to escape and were miraculously rescued last week by the Sri Lankan Coast Guard. The Muslim minority from Myanmar has never been accorded the status of political refugees, and even when they seek refuge in other Asian countries, are victims of rejection and abuse.

The survivors' stories reveal that the boat was headed for the coast of Malaysia, when it was intercepted by a navy vessel from Thailand. The Thai military - although Bangkok rejects the accusations - intercepted the boat and seized the engine, leaving it drift with 130 people on board. They spent 25 days at sea, at the mercy of the currents, without food or water, until the Sri Lankan Coast Guard intervened, on February 23, about 250 miles off the east coast, and  helped to save the people still alive when the boat began to sink.

All the survivors, 32 men and a boy were transferred to a detention centre for immigrants near Colombo, pending assylum measures, many of them suffering from serious problems caused by dehydration. Shofiulla, one of the survivors, said the trip "was very dangerous, but we had to do it ... we feared for our lives, no work, and terrible fighting [at home]." He adds that each of the people on board had to shell out 465 US dollars to get on board the boat, which set sail from the Burmese coast on January 10.

In June 2012 the District Court of Kyaukphyu in the State of Rakhine sentenced three Muslims, deemed responsible for the rape and killing in late May of Thida Htwe, a young Buddhist Arakanese (Rakhine). This is the origin of violent sectarian clashes between Muslims and Buddhists (see AsiaNews 19/06/2012 Rakhine, ethnic violence: three death sentences for the rape-murder of a woman). In the following days, an angry mob, killed10 innocent Muslims entirely unconnected with the violent episode. The spiral of hatred has caused the death of 29 others, including 16 Muslims and 13 Buddhists. According to official sources at least 2,600 homes were set alight, while hundreds of Rohingya refugees have sought refuge abroad. According to United Nations estimates there are at least 800 thousand Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar whom the government considers illegal immigrants and as a result are victims of abuse and persecution.

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