By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai authorities have charged the captain and crew of a boat carrying 65 Rohingya Muslims with assisting illegal immigration after the group was found stranded on a southern Thai island, police said on Wednesday.
The 29 men, 31 women and five children were discovered on Rawi island in Satun province where their boat had beached due to engine trouble, police said on Tuesday.
The crew – five Myanmar nationals and the Thai captain – were charged with assisting foreign nationals to enter the country illegally, an offence that can carry a prison term of up to 10 years.
“We have charged the Thai and Myanmar suspects with assisting illegal entry for migrants,” Police General Suchart Thirasawat told Reuters.
The Rohingya are being cared for while authorities try to determine if they are victims of human trafficking, he said.
“We have not pressed charges against the Rohingya passengers and are still working to determine whether they are victims or not,” Suchart said.
Many Rohingya Muslims have boarded boats in recent months to try to reach Malaysia, part of what authorities fear could be a new wave of people smuggling by sea after a 2015 crackdown on trafficking.
“Based on what we know so far, these Rohingya are from the border area between Myanmar and Bangladesh and they were travelling to Malaysia,” said Jaruwat Kliangklao, governor of Satun province.
Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants from the Indian subcontinent and has confined tens of thousands to sprawling camps in Rakhine state segregated from the Buddhist Rakhine population since violence swept the area in 2012.
The unrest prompted tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar by sea, an exodus that peaked in 2015 when an estimated 25,000 people crossed the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into Bangladesh in 2017 after a crackdown by the Myanmar’s army, according to U.N. agencies.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; editing by Darren Schuettler)