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More than 700 migrants found adrift on a fishing boat six days ago disembarked in western Burma’s Arakan State on Wednesday, officials said, as the US warned it was monitoring their fate “very closely”.
Before they were intercepted the migrants had been heading south towards Malaysia, which along with Indonesia and Thailand has seen 3,500 hungry people arrive in recent weeks in a migrant crisis that has unfurled since a crackdown on people-smuggling.
Burma’s navy has found hundreds more migrants in its waters and appears determined to foist them on to neighbouring Bangladesh, although officials there are resisting mass deportations across the frontier.
Burma said the 727 passengers found aboard the vessel last Friday were “Bengalis” – the term it uses to describe its persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority – and initially threatened to send them across the border before the navy escorted them towards Arakan, officially known as Rakhine.
“They arrived this morning at around 9.30 am [on Wednesday]” in Maungdaw District, a local government official, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
Authorities planned to move them to the nearby village of Taungpyo Letwe, close to the Bangladesh border, where an earlier group of 200 migrants rescued off the Burma coast are being held while their nationalities are verified.
Another unnamed official in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe said the group will be given food and shelter before being deported “after assessing [their nationalities] with Bangladesh border authorities”.
Bangladesh’s coastguard on Tuesday told AFP they had increased sea patrols near Maungdaw to prevent people from Burma being pushed into its territory by sea.
Most of Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya have no citizenship and they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The UN’s refugee agency estimates around 2,000 other migrants are still trapped at sea, heaping pressure on both Burma and Bangladesh to take them back and improve living conditions to stem the outflow.
On Wednesday US Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard, who has visited camps housing Rohingya refugees in western Indonesia in recent days, said Burma was “responsible for what happens to people” on the boat which docked Wednesday.
“We are following this very closely because we want to make sure any of the innocent people on the boat get proper treatment and are handled humanely,” she told reporters in Jakarta.
She added that the US wanted the Rohingya treated as citizens of Burma, and would continue pressuring the government in Naypyidaw as it continues its transition to democracy and prepares for elections later this year.
The plight of the Muslim group has come under scrutiny as the migrant crisis has unfurled in Southeast Asia after a Thai crackdown on people smuggling threw the multi-million dollar industry into disarray, leading gangmasters to abandon their victims on land and at sea.
US President Barack Obama has recently joined calls urging Burma to end discrimination against the Rohingya minority.
When pressed on whether the US would impose sanctions should Burma fail to treat the minority population humanely, Richard said they remained an option but were not being actively considered at this stage.
“In the diplomatic toolbox, sanctions is one of the options,” she said.
The Rohingya flee Arakan in droves each year to escape poverty and persecution in a region where their movements are controlled and they lack access to jobs or basic services.
Bangladeshi migrants have also taken the perilous sea crossing in recent years with many searching for better jobs in Malaysia, where the boats are usually bound.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking Thai army officer wanted on human trafficking charges handed himself into police Wednesday, the first military figure in the junta-ruled kingdom to be arrested over the grim trade.
Lt-Gen Manas Kongpan voluntarily attended police headquarters in Bangkok on Wednesday morning.
His detention raises awkward questions for junta chief Prayut Chan-o-Cha, who has repeatedly justified his coup last year as a much-needed antidote to graft that he says had flourished under a series of elected civilian governments.
Manas, a long-serving army officer in Thailand’s south, arrived at police headquarters dressed in his military uniform and made no statement to a waiting press pack.
But the country’s top police officer said the 58-year-old denied the charges against him.
“[He] contacted me to surrender and to fight the case,” national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters.
“He said he has no involvement in the case – in other words he denied the charges,” Somyot added.
Thai police have yet to detail what role Manas is alleged to have played in the country’s once thriving people smuggling and human trafficking trade.
Rights groups have long accused Thai officials of turning a blind eye to – or even complicity in – the trade of migrants through its southern provinces and into Malaysia, but until now no military personnel have been implicated.
Thai police say they have issued 84 arrest warrants in connection with their people smuggling and human trafficking investigation, with 51 suspects detained so far, including some local officials.
Southern Thailand has long been known as a nexus for lucrative and largely unchecked smuggling networks through which persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Burma, and Bangladeshi economic migrants, amongst others, would pass on their way to Malaysia.
The extent of the trade – and the brutality of gangmasters who ran it – was laid bare last month when a Thai crackdown led to the discovery of scores of jungle prison camps on both sides of the Thailand-Malaysia border that were run by smuggling gangs.
So far more than 150 graves have been uncovered in the camps where many victims were held for months in miserable conditions until relatives paid hefty ransoms for the release of their loved ones.
In recent weeks around 4,500 hungry and bedraggled migrants have arrived on Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Bangladeshi and Burma soil after the crackdown threw smuggling routes into disarray.
According to the Royal Thai Army website, Manas was the commander of the upper south province of Chumphon in 2013, before taking a senior position in Songkhla, which borders Malaysia.
He was moved this year to the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok to act as an adviser – although it was not immediately clear in what capacity.
The army has suspended Manas and launched an internal probe since the arrest warrant was issued against him on Sunday.