Myanmar arrests Thai man who allegedly owns boat crammed with migrants

YANGON (AFP) - A Thai national who allegedly owned a boat that was recently discovered by the Myanmar navy to be crammed with more than 200 migrants has been arrested, state media said on Saturday.

The 53-year-old man was detained in the country's biggest city Yangon, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported, adding that his capture was made after authorities exchanged "information with Thai police".

The paper said the man operated under a handful of Myanmar aliases, adding that his Thai name was Naingnutpatunsantun and that he came from Thailand's Ranong province.

"He was said to have contacted human trafficking gangs in Bangladesh and trafficked people into Thailand and Malaysia," the report said.

It did not say when the arrest was made or what the man was charged with.

Earlier this month, Myanmar's navy discovered more than 200 bare-chested men in the hull of a wooden, Thai-registered fishing vessel.

It was the first rescue the navy made since Myanmar came under increasing pressure to stem the exodus of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from its shores after a Thai crackdown on the lucrative regional smuggling trade left thousands of desperate migrants stranded on land and sea after gangmasters abandoned them.

Thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi economic migrants have been attempting perilous boat journeys organised by people-smugglers to Southeast Asia.

Malaysia is a favourite destination. Migrants often travelled to Thailand by boat, then overland to northern Malaysia.

On Friday, a second vessel filled with more than 700 would-be migrants was discovered by Myanmar's navy in the Irrawaddy delta region.

- Persecuted minority -

Myanmar has insisted all those found on the first boat are Bangladeshi nationals and has vowed to return them there, although it is not clear if they have been allowed to cross or if Rohingya from Myanmar were among the group.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group and officials routinely refer to them as "Bengalis" from across the border.

But Bangladesh has said it will not take back any migrants who trace their origin to Myanmar.

The source nationality of those on board the second vessel is also currently unclear, with Myanmar saying those on board are "Bengalis" but not yet clarifying whether they mean migrants from Bangladesh or Myanmar.

Since Bangkok's crackdown, more than 3,500 migrants have arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil in recent weeks, and hundreds or thousands more are feared still trapped on boats.

Myanmar's Rohingya are one of the world's most persecuted minorities, and a surge of violence in 2012 between the community and the Buddhist majority in western Rakhine State brought their plight to the fore. They face restrictions on movement, jobs and family size.

But Myanmar has been keen to portray those leaving as Bangladeshi economic migrants and has rejected widespread criticism that the Rohingya's dire conditions are one of the primary root causes of the current exodus.

At a regional meeting to address the migrant crisis in Bangkok on Friday, Myanmar's delegation said it was being "singled out" for criticism after a UN representative called on the former junta-led nation to improve the Rohingya's lot.