COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Myanmar asylum seekers 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 held 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 face heavy discrimination in Myanmar, and say they do not want to return there.
The survivors were suffering from serious dehydration when they were rescued about 250 miles off Sri Lanka's east coast. The Sri Lankan 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" in Myanmar, one of the survivors, Shofiulla, told The Associated Press.
Sectarian violence in western Myanmar has killed hundreds of people and displaced 100,000 more since last June. The Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Myanmar, which is mostly Buddhist. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the Myanmar 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.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern Friday over the rising number of deaths of Rohingya at sea and urged Myanmar's government to promote reconciliation in conflict-hit Rakhine state and ensure them basic living conditions and eventual access to citizenship.