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Myanmar Allows Ship With Migrants To Dock In Rakhine State

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to Southeast Asia. For months, boatloads of migrants have been stranded off the coast of Myanmar. One boat with more than 700 on board has been allowed to land there this week. The nationalities of those on board are not known, but most are believed to be either economic migrants from Bangladesh or members of Myanmar's minority Rohingya community, Muslims long persecuted in that Buddhist country. Michael Sullivan reports from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thousands of migrants have come ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in the past month, but thousands more may still be at sea, abandoned by traffickers after the Thais cracked down on the lucrative trade in early May. That was prompted by the discovery of dozens of suspected migrant graves in southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia. Two weeks ago, Malaysian authorities made a grim discovery of their own - more than 139 graves believed to belong to migrants trafficked from Bangladesh and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Now there's word from Myanmar of more than 40 bodies washing ashore in western Rakhine State. Chris Lewa, the head of a Rohingya advocacy group, says she believes they are the bodies of migrants abandoned by traffickers just offshore when it became clear the traffickers' boats would not be able to reach Thai or Malaysian waters.

CHRIS LEWA: We believe that they had been, as I said, either thrown out or jump or whatever, but they come from the boats that were in the hands of brokers at the time.

SULLIVAN: In addition, Lewa says, she believes that many migrants aboard have been paying brokers or traffickers to sneak them back into Myanmar, sometimes paying hundreds of dollars to return to the place they'd originally fled.

LEWA: Exactly. Otherwise, they would not even been allowed to get into their own country because the rule is in Myanmar, a Rohingya leaves, he's not ever allowed to go back. Normally, they should not, but that's the only way that the brokers found to get them back is to pay off, I'm sure, the authority to quietly let them return because without paying, they would not be able to get back at all.

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's government says it is processing the 727 refugees found aboard the boat brought to shore yesterday to determine where they're from. Economic migrants from Bangladesh will be returned home. What happens to the Rohingya is less clear. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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