Malaysian authorities have picked up 93 Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar who said they spent 30 days at sea in a crowded wooden boat, an official said on Friday.
The Rohingya men, an ethnic group not recognized by Myanmar’s military regime, had apparently been chased out of Thai waters before they were detained on Wednesday off Malaysia’s northern resort island of Langkawi, said Zainuddin Mohamad Suki, an officer with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
The Thais denied they chased the boat away.
A fishing boat had earlier reported to the agency that the men were asking for food and water from passing vessels after their open boat experienced engine failure, he said.
Initial investigations showed they had been at sea for 30 days after fleeing their homeland, he said.
“Some of the men said they were chased out of Thai waters earlier before they made their way to Langkawi. They said they were sailing aimlessly in the hope of finding a country that will accept them,” Mr. Zainuddin told The Associated Press.
Vimon Kidchob, spokeswoman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, however, said troops gave the men food and water, suggesting the men left Thai territory of their own accord.
“The Rohingyas were not chased out of the Thai waters. Thai soldiers on the Andaman Coast found a group of non—Thai people in boats, so they gave the people food and water and let them continue their journey,” she said.
Thailand has acknowledged in the past towing away boats of Rohingyas, hoping they will land in other countries.
The Muslim Rohingyas number about 800,000 in Myanmar where they are denied full citizenship and face widespread abuses including forced labour, land seizures and rape, rights groups say.
Hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Middle East, and rights groups have expressed concern they will be tortured or killed if forced to return to Myanmar.
Mr. Zainuddin said some of the men detained suffered minor injuries and have been given medical treatment.
All 93 have been handed over to the immigration department in northern Kedah state and are likely to be sent to a detention centre, he added.
Kedah immigration officers could not be immediately reached for comment.
Malaysia has the biggest number of Rohingya refugees in the region, more than 14,000, many of whom have stayed for years in the country, working illegally in plantations or factories, officials said.