At least 47 people are feared dead after an overloaded ferry sank in bad weather off the western coast of Myanmar, government officials said Saturday, though local residents said they believed the death toll was much higher.
The ship was reportedly carrying 214 passengers and crew when it ran into high seas late on Friday on a voyage from the coastal town of Taunggok to Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state, a police officer in Sittwe told Agence France-Presse.
Pyay Nyein, a senior official with the Inland Water Transport Department, said 167 people had been saved, but the rest were either dead or missing and believed to be dead.
"Twenty bodies have been found while 27 are still missing. Rescue workers are looking for them," said Nyein.
Residents in Taunggok, from where the boat embarked, said they believed the death toll was likely higher, as ferries are often crowded with unregistered passengers.
"Normally, the number of tickets sold is not reliable when it comes to the number of passengers," said a Taunggok merchant who declined to be identified. "So the number of missing must be many more than 27. We understand the chances of finding them in this weather are very slim."
Many Myanmar citizens living along the nation's lengthy coastline and flood-prone river systems rely heavily on poorly maintained ferries for transportation.
Sunken ferries are not uncommon. Ten people were killed in 2010 when a ferry capsized in the Irrawaddy delta region, while 38 died in 2008 when a ship went down in the Yway River.
In recent years, Rakhine state has also been the departure point for thousands of desperate Muslim Rohingya who crowd onto small and dangerously overcrowded boats to escape persecution, often aiming for Thailand or Malaysia.
The Arakan Project, a rights group monitoring the Rohingya community, estimated in October that some 100,000 Rohingya have fled by boat since 2012. Many of those vessels were barely seaworthy and some are known to have never reached their destination.