Skip to main content

Malaysia arrests minorities fleeing Myanmar

By Dan Rivers, CNN
  • Malaysia says it is detaining 93 ethnic Rohingya males, aged 16 to 50
  • Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority from western regions of Myanmar
  • Rohingya refugees says they have been persecuted by Myanmar's ruling military junta
  • Thailand denies claim that group of males was towed out to sea, set adrift

(CNN) -- Malaysian authorities have arrested a boatload of ethnic minorities fleeing Myanmar off the holiday island of Langkawi.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency says the 93 Rohingya men, aged between 16 and 50 years old, are being detained by immigration authorities in Malaysia.

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority from western Myanmar who say they have been persecuted by that country's ruling military junta and have long sought refuge in other places.

A local Rohingya representative said that Thai authorities had towed the boat carrying the 93 boys and men out to sea and given them supplies, before cutting them adrift to float south into Malaysian waters.

Video: The Forgotten People: Part 1
Video: The Forgotten People: Part 2

Thai authorities denied the claim.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi confirmed the Thai Navy did find a boat of refugees in international waters on March 4. The men told the Navy they were from Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

Thongpakdi insisted the Thai Navy gave them food and water supplies and then "let them go on their way," because they'd told the Navy they were heading to another country.

A CNN investigation last year of the plight of the Rohingya found compelling evidence that the Thai Navy had been towing boatloads of Rohingya away from the Thai coast, far out to sea, before cutting them adrift. It's still not clear how many died as a result.

A Thai government spokesman recently claimed CNN's photographic evidence of the Rohingya boats being towed out to sea was faked.

But last year Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted there were "some instances" when boats were pushed out to sea, and vowed to investigate who was responsible and bring them to account. No one in the Thai Navy has yet been charged or disciplined as a result of the probe.

Myanmar's regime does not recognize the 750,000 Rohingya as one of the national races. Many of them have fled persecution in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, where they face dire conditions.

A report that came out this month by Physicians for Human Rights noted acute levels of malnutrition among a surging camp population.