Fresh Refugee Boat Sighted off Phuket, Sailing Towards Thailand Malaysia Border

PHUKET: A boatload of would-be asylum seekers - probably Rohingya and Bangladeshis - passed Phuket last night and is proceeding south towards the Thai-Malaysia border, officials confirmed to Phuketwan today.

A sighting took place about 10.30pm last night off Racha island, a popular day-trip snorkelling destination for tourists visiting Phuket.

''The boat should be off the southern province of Satun in Thailand in about 15 hours,'' Phuketwan was told.

The unexpected arrival of a boat travelling south from Burma or Bangladesh will pose a quandary for authorities in the region.

The governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have so far left thousands of refugees at sea on as many as four vessels rather than conduct a multi-national rescue operation.

Conditions on the vessels are likely to be deteriorating rapidly.

The newly-arrived boat is likely to be intercepted in international waters and ''helped on'' with supplies if necessary by the Royal Thai Navy.

One group of 106 Rohingya and Bangladeshis was last week dumped by a Thai trafficker on Surin island, off the coast of Thailand's Andaman region.

Those refugees were taken to the mainland and into the hands of Thai officials because they were apprehended on Thai soil.

The same interpretation is likely to apply for the passengers on the vessel sighted off Phuket last night: if the boat ends up in Thai waters, the passengers will be taken into custody in Thailand.

Talks are due to take place between the three countries in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow to try to resolve the disturbing humanitarian crisis triggered by the refusal of the three countries to give aid or sanctuary to the vessels now in limbo at sea.

Upwards of 2000 men, women and children are thought to be on board. When one of the vessels was last sighted, passengers were pleading for help.

Efforts have been made since yesterday by authorities along the southern Thai coast to prevent Thai and international media from putting to sea to search for the stranded vessels.

At least two media organisations are reported to have beaten the cordon of officials in the hope of intercepting the new boat that has entered the restricted zone.

The Governor of Satun, Dejrat Simsiri, was holding an urgent meeting of local authorities and police today to try to coordinate an appropriate response to the latest unwanted arrivals at sea.

According to the AFP news agency, Australia reiterated its backing on Tuesday for its regional neighbors' efforts to stem a surge in boatpeople in Southeast Asia by turning back vessels.

Sadly Australia, once a role model for the region, has perhaps unwittingly become a philosophical ally of Burma.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, unwanted stateless Rohingya are being driven into the sea by racists and religious extremists in South East Asia's own form of extreme apartheid. Some are calling it genocide.