MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The story of more than 400 people who were stranded for months on a rickety fishing boat has pushed governments in Southeast Asia to act. Indonesia and Malaysia have now agreed to allow boats of migrants that reach their shores to land. The governments say they'll provide assistance and shelter for up to a year. This happened as Indonesian fishermen rescued the boat of migrants that first made news last week. It had been pushed back by both the Malaysian and Thai navies. Michael Sullivan has the story.
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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is the boat that finally got governments to act, found by two boatloads of journalists late last week - its captain and crew missing, the hundreds of men women and children packed aboard desperate. When the Thai navy arrived, it distributed food and water to those onboard - some by hand, some dropped by helicopter into the water, where dozens of men from the boat instantly jumped in to retrieve it.
Onboard, there were scuffles over the food. The passengers said they'd been at sea for four months - migrants from Bangladesh and members of Myanmar's Muslim minority Rohingya, fleeing persecution by the Buddhist majority. After giving out supplies and fixing the boat's engine, the Thai navy toted it into international waters. Thai navy Lieutenant Commander Weerapong Nakprasit says he could do no more.
WEERAPONG NAKPRASIT: (Through interpreter) We looked after their basic humanitarian needs, but the most important thing for us is our own security. If they come into our waters, they're breaking the law as illegal migrants.
SULLIVAN: They're still illegal migrants, even though the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia today said they would accept the migrants currently at sea - an estimated 7,000 people. But both governments insisted the offer was a one-off and that more aren't welcome. Thailand isn't part of today's agreement. And it doesn't mean the migrants will stop coming either, in part because Myanmar's government doesn't want them to stop.
AMY SMITH: We've actually documented the Myanmar navy towing boats out to sea to send them on their way to Thailand and Malaysia.
SULLIVAN: That's Amy Smith, executive director of the human rights NGO Fortify Rights.
SMITH: This is something that they're complicit in. We know that they're receiving money from the traffickers, so they're very much in bed with the trafficking networks. They're getting rid of a population that they feel is not supposed to be in their country, and they are making money off of it.
SULLIVAN: Despite today's agreement, there's no guarantee the migrants will be able to make it that far without adequate supplies on boats where conditions are often beyond brutal.
MOHAMAD NASI: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: 13-year-old Mohamad Nasi, a Rohingya, was on one of the last boats to arrive in Thailand before authorities cracked down. He's been here a little over a month, having escaped his traffickers. And he's a young man with a nasty story about his experience at sea.
MOHAMAD: (Through interpreter) While we were on the boat, they kept us below deck. When we asked for water, they didn't give it to us. And the guards beat us, and some people died from those beatings. Many died because it was very hot underneath the decks. We asked them to throw the bodies overboard because of the smell, but the guards just said wait, there will be more. Then we'll throw them all out together.
SULLIVAN: Abu Talet is a 50-year-old Rohingya who managed to escape his captors, too, who were holding him here in southern Thailand after his boat landed in a place not far from where the graves of more than two dozen migrants were discovered over two weeks ago.
ABU TALET: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: He says he was a teacher at one of the displacement camps in Myanmar's Rakhine state for Rohingya forced to flee the last few years of violence. But Abu Talet says he left because of harassment by Burmese officials. He lives in a one-room shack here in southern Thailand, and it's bleak. He doesn't speak the language. He can't teach anymore. He can't make enough money to bring his wife and family here. But he still thinks that he had no choice but to leave.
TALET: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: "There, I was a prisoner in my own home," he says. "I never knew when they would come for me. Now that I'm here, I know they can't get at me, and they won't bother my family." And that's why more likely to come. The Rohingya - stateless in Myanmar, not recognized as citizens by the Burmese government, not safe there anymore. Amy Smith of the NGO Fortify Rights.
SMITH: The situation in the displacement camps where most of them are staying have so deteriorated that they really have no option to stay there anymore. They're lacking basic humanitarian needs - food. They're lacking medical care. This is a situation that really can't continue, and it needs to be addressed. And it needs to be addressed in Myanmar. That's the root cause.
SULLIVAN: A spokesman for Myanmar's president insisted last week that his country is not the source of the problem and hinted Myanmar might not attend a regional summit next week in Bangkok if the word Rohingya is used. They now seem to be reconsidering. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan.
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