So thirsty, they lick water off rescue ship's deck

Survivors said they were adrift for at least 15 days; Thai government under increasing pressure to account for actionsJanuary 20, 2009

LEFT to fend for themselves in the open sea on a barge without an engine, paddles, or sails, at least 300 desperate Myanmar migrants believed that swimming to a distant island was their only hope for survival.

NOT WELCOME: Two undated handout photos released by Thai Royal Navy yesterday, showing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar on the beach after they were escorted by the navy to an island south of Thailand. PICTURES: AFP By the time rescuers found them, only 11 were still alive.
And the survivors said they had to swim through a sea of dead bodies to get to where they were.

Accounts like this are slowly surfacing as the Thai navy is being accused of dragging the Rohingya - Muslims who come from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh - into the middle of the sea and leaving them after catching them trying to sail into Thailand illegally.

The Bangkok Post reported that out of the 412refugees left out at sea on a barge in one such operation on 18 Dec last year, only a third survived.

While there are no official figures of how many have been towed out to sea, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) said that at least 538 Rohingyas are believed to be dead or missing.
India's coast guard said yesterday that it had rescued hundreds of the refugees but that hundreds more were feared lost.

Indian coast guard commander S P Sharma, said: 'Some survivors... said their boat was towed out to sea by the Thai navy and given two sacks of boiled rice and two gallons of water before being abandoned in the middle of the sea.'

Mr Zaw Min, a Rohingya who was rescued, told the Bangkok Post: 'We were tied up and put into a boat without an engine... We were then towed into the high seas by a motor boat and set adrift.

'Thai authorities obviously wanted us to die on theboat.'
Another survivor said that their food and water ran out after just two days.

'We were starving for nearly two weeks and feared we would never see dry land again,' the survivor said, adding that they had been adrift for at least 15 days.

Commandant Kailash Negi told SCMP that he has never seen such desperation among men during his long career in the Indian coastguard.

'Some of the people we rescued on 27Dec. As soon as we brought them aboard the coastguard ship they fell flat and started licking the water on the deck,' he said.
'They were really desperate.'

More bodies expected
All refugees rescued by the Indian coast guard were sent to a relief camp on the Andaman Islands.

According to transcripts of coast guard interviews with the Rohingyas, survivors alleged that four refugees were shot dead by the Thai military during the process of loading the barge and that a teenager was thrown into the sea with his hands tied.

Similar accounts of harsh treatment and abandonment by the Thai military were given by another boat of Rohingya survivors rescued in off Indonesia's Aceh province.

One of the survivors,Mr Imam Husein, 30, told The Jakarta Post: 'We were in Thailand for two days, but they abused us and expelled us with gunshots.'

His boat was believed to have been adrift for 28days before he was rescued by the Indonesian Navy almost 700km from the Thai coast.

Till now, the Thai government has denied accusations that its navy left the illegal immigrants out at sea to die.

Yet mounting photographic evidence and accounts from Western tourists who have recently visited the beautiful sun-dappled islands on Thailand's Andaman coast have supported the charges.

Media reports have shown photographs of people on a beach with their hands trussed above their heads.

'These are really serious allegations that need to be investigated by the UN and the Thai government,' said MrDavid Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar with NewYork-based Human Rights Watch.

The Thai government said it would meet humanrights groups later today.