US raises pressure as more grim migrant tales emerge

US raises pressure as more grim migrant tales emerge

Rohingya migrants on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman. (AFP photo)
Rohingya migrants on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman. (AFP photo)

LANGSA, INDONESIA — Washington raised the pressure on Southeast Asia to open its ports to boat people on Saturday after migrants described a terrifying battle for survival between Rohingya and Bangladeshi passengers as their shunned vessel sank off Indonesia.

The US State Department said John Kerry had phoned his Thai counterpart "to discuss the situation of migrants in the Andaman Sea and to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter for them".

"We urge governments in the region to refrain from push-backs of new boat arrivals," State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said.

He called on Southeast Asian authorities "to work together quickly, first and foremost to save the lives of migrants."

Southeast Asia is in the grips of a deepening crisis over a flood of boat people with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand coming under pressure to rescue the starving and helpless migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar's oppressed Muslim Rohingya minority.

The UN refugee agency has reported a surge in departures from Bay of Bengal ports in recent months, and activists say 8,000 people may be adrift after a Thai crackdown severed busy human-trafficking routes.

Survivors of a boat that sank off the east coast of Sumatra island — among roughly 900 people rescued off Indonesia on Friday — described a violent struggle between Bangladeshis and Rohingya for scarce food and space.

"They were killing each other, throwing people overboard," said Sunarya, police chief of the city of Langsa near where they were rescued.

The jam-packed boat had put to sea two months ago, and with supplies running low, its Thai captain would shoot dead migrants who asked for food, said Muhammad Amin, a Rohingya.

The captain and crew abandoned ship earlier this week, and as the boat was turned away first by Indonesia and then Malaysia, the Rohingya won a violent struggle for remaining supplies, said Bangladeshi survivor Muhammad Koyes.

"When we asked for food, they beat us. The Bangladeshis were very weak, so we could not fight back," he said.

More fighting broke out as the boat took on water, Muhammad Amin said, and he and others were thrown overboard. He drifted six hours before being rescued.

"Thank God we survived, I have a wife and children in Malaysia," he said.

Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Sumatra's Aceh province after managing to get ashore in recent days.

The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.

But Rohingya have been fleeing their homes in Rakhine state in droves — bound largely for Malaysia — to escape years of sectarian violence and discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Each spring, boats stream southward out of the Bay of Bengal, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms. Hundreds die every year, according to the UN refugee agency.

The flow has surged recently as traffickers have duped migrants by waiving payment for passage, said Hla Myint, a Rohingya leader in a refugee camp near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe.

Instead, they later demand ransoms from migrants' families once at sea, or ashore in Thailand or Malaysia.

The trend has contributed to boats being held at sea for weeks.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called for migrants to be rescued, and his High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Friday he was "appalled" at the migrant boat push-backs, warning that more will die.

But the head of Indonesia's armed forces stood firm.

"(Boat people) will not be allowed to enter our region. If they do, they may create social problems," General Moeldoko said, according to state-run media.

Amid regional finger-pointing, Myanmar — which insists Rohingya are not its problem — has snubbed a Thai call for a May 29 crisis summit.

The Thai navy discovered 106 Rohingya on an island off its west coast, a provincial governor said Friday.

Earlier, a boat carrying about 300 emaciated Rohingya left Thailand's waters, an official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided food.

The Thai official said the migrants refused offers to land, apparently fearing deportation to Myanmar.

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