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Myanmar's warship Captain Aung Zaw Hlaing on Phuket today

Myanmar Warships Make Historic Goodwill Visit to Phuket: Photo Special

Wednesday, February 20, 2013
PHUKET: The issue of the Rohingya was being handled ''as humanely as possible,'' a senior Burmese Navy officer said today at the start of a historic goodwill visit to Phuket.

However, Captain Aung Zaw Hlaing quickly pointed out in a brief interview with Phuketwan that his preference was to call the Rohingya ''Bengalis'' and that his country's name is not Burma, but ''Myanmar.''

A brass band played and children waved the flags of Thailand and Myanmar as Captain Aung stepped ashore to be greeted by senior Thai officers and traditionally dressed dancers with garlands at the Royal Thai Navy base at Cape Panwa, on Phuket's east coast.

Captain Aung's two Myanmar frigates, with new grey paintwork freshly applied, will be anchored close to the base for three days.

The warships had entered Thai waters near Ranong, the port on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, and sailed down the coast, the captain said - much the same route that Rohingya/Bengalis take coming south.

When asked if he'd seen any boatpeople along the way, the captain said: ''No, no, no, no.'' He added, referring to notes when asked another question: ''We are handling this issue as humanely as possible.''

Phuket appears to have unusually high appeal for vessels from Myanmar right now.

Just last month, two Rohingya boats were intercepted off Phuket. The 73 men, women and children on board the first boat that arrived on January 1 were apprehended and trucked back towards Ranong the next day.

According to an officer in the Thai Army's Internal Security Operations Command, the group was swiftly placed back on another boat.

A person who claims to be a people trafficker later told the BBC and Phuketwan that those boatpeople had been bought for 1.5 million baht. The group is now believed to be in Malaysia.

A second, larger boat laden with 205 Rohingya/Bengali men and boys was ''helped on'' towards Malaysia late in January when intercepted by a Thai Navy tender. The boatpeople gave the Navy a round of applause. Most are pleased to be ''helped on'' to Malaysia.

Rohingya - they call themselves Rohingya - interviewed in January and February by Phuketwan say the treatment of outcast Muslims in camps and ghettos around the township of Sittwe in Myanmar is so bad that they have no choice except to flee by boat.

According to NGOs, conditions amid the ethnic cleansing now taking place in Rakhine state are likely to grow worse, not better.

Captain Aung said today that he, his officers and the crews were ''very pleased to visit Thailand.'' Thailand and Myanmar had ''very good relations,'' he said.

The two warships head back to Myanmar again on Saturday.

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