YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Dozens of corpses have washed to shore in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine in the last month, an advocacy group and villagers said Wednesday. Some were believed to be Rohingya Muslims trying to escape trafficking ships, while others were Bangladeshi.
Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, and other officials were in meetings and could not immediately be reached for comment.
Rakhine State Minister Maung Maung Ohn had no word on the bodies but his office was checking into the report.
At least 47 bodies washed up on beaches and the mouths of rivers May 12-24, many so badly decomposed they were unrecognizable, said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which has been monitoring activities in the isolated, northern tip of Rakhine for more than a decade.
Lewa — who provided a village-by-village breakdown and the dates each corpse was found — believes they drowned while trying to swim to shore.
Religious leader Ashu Dular and other residents in two villages contacted by The Associated Press by phone gave similar accounts, together tallying at least 18 corpses in a much less complete survey.
Myanmar has denied blame for a humanitarian crisis that has gripped Southeast Asia since early May, with more than 4,600 desperate and hungry boat people rescued in five countries after a massive, regional crackdown on human trafficking prompted some captains to abandon their human cargo at sea.
The United Nations says around half those brought to land have been Rohingya, fleeing violence and discrimination in their predominantly Buddhist country; the remainder, it says, are Bangladeshis, escaping poverty.
Myanmar, which denies the existence of the Rohingya, insists all those who have fled by boat in recent months were Bangladeshi. The government has gone to great lengths to make sure it is not disproven — at least not on its own soil.
Its Navy detained journalists, including the AP, over the weekend, erasing their camera memory cards, when they were trying to confirm the nationalities of 727 migrants on a boat hidden away for days near a remote island.
The ship was being towed Wednesday to northern Rakhine.
And late last month, Myanmar's government claimed a ship with more than 200 migrants — all Bangladeshis — had been recovered. But many more Rohingya were taken off the ship and brought to shore under the cover of darkness before they landed, said Araf, a 26-year-old woman, who was among those who said she was forced to disembark with her five children. Others in Sittwe, the state capital, had similar accounts.
For months, ships crammed with hundreds of migrants stayed in the Bay of Bengal, hoping to leave after the security crackdown eased. That didn't happen and conditions on board deteriorated, recent escapees complaining they were getting almost nothing to eat and were badly beaten if they made any noise. Some bought their freedom with help from family and friends, paying hundreds of dollars.
"In some cases, brokers started using fishing boats to bring a few people to shore," said Lewa. "But they were afraid to come too close and dropped them as near to the coast as they could."
Her team saw bodies on beaches and in the mouth of a tiny river along Rakhine's northern tip. Many were believed to be Bangladeshis, dropped off in Myanmar because they felt it was not safe to disembark in their own country during a high alert, she said.
Of the 47 bodies found, 15 corpses washed up in Alei Than Kyaw; 14 in Oo Daung River; 11 in Tha Pyay Taw; six in Tha Ya Kone and one in Myinn Hlut, the Arakan Project said.