ALAETHAKAW VILLAGE, Myanmar (REUTERS) - At least eight Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar were among some 200 migrants rescued from a trafficking boat by the Myanmar navy on Thursday, according to interviews conducted by Reuters, contradicting official accounts that all onboard were from Bangladesh.
Myanmar portrayed the rescue operation as a proof that thousands of boat people were not persecuted Rohingya from Myanmar, denying it discriminates against the minority and resisting pressure to help solve the problem.
South-east Asia is grappling with a humanitarian crisis involving thousands of people trafficked from Myanmar and Bangladesh into Malaysia and Indonesia. After a crackdown disrupted smuggling routes, many are now trapped at sea on what the United Nations has described as 'floating coffins'.
"This clearly show 'Boat People are not from Myanmar', strong evidence," Zaw Htay, a senior official of the office of the president, said in a Facebook post announcing the rescue of the boat on Friday.
But on a visit to a remote village in north-west Myanmar, where more than 200 rescued men were being fed and taken care of at an Islamic school, Reuters interviewed a group of Rohingya Muslims from the village of Kyauk Taw in Rakhine state.
"We had no jobs and nothing to lose. So we boarded the boat," said Marmot Rarbi, 23. He said the traffickers let the eight Rohingya men on the boat for free, but later demanded RM6,500 (S$2,414) for smuggling them to Malaysia.
Rarbi said he was on the boat for more than three months.
Thousands of Rohingya have boarded trafficking ships.
Most of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya, an ethnic minority living in western Myanmar, are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in the state of Rakhine in 2012.
On a visit to the Islamic school, Vijay Nambiar, special adviser on Myanmar to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, thanked the government for the rescue and called on the Rakhine Buddhist majority to include the Muslims in nation-building.
"The Muslim community must feel that it can work for this country and the Rakhine community should let the Muslim community work together for the future of this state," said Nambiar in a meeting with community leaders.
Nambiar told Reuters that Myanmar deserved credit for the rescue operation, but added that in addition to abject poverty, it was discrimination in Myanmar that pushed the Rohingya into the hands of traffickers.
"Part of the cause for the migration is also the treatment of the Muslim community in Rakhine...and institutional discrimination against the Rohingya are things that we have to work on," said Nambiar, pledging full UN support to help solve the issue.
Myanmar has said it would continue its rescue efforts.
"Our navy and airforce are out there in search of the boats. We will ensure that our actions will rescue people regardless of their country, religion or ethnic background. We are there to help human kind," said Win Myint, Deputy Minister of Immigration and Population.
South-east Asian nations will discuss the boat people crisis at an emergency conference in Thai capital Bangkok next week.