Myeik tour companies accused of failing to take responsibility after deadly boat accident

The speedboat sliced across a calm, glimmering sea late last month around three hours after leaving the jetty at the emerging tourist destination of Myeik, southeastern Myanmar.  

It was a picture of paradise, complete with an azure sky, that tour operators hope will draw more local and international travellers in the coming years despite recent setbacks for the country’s tourism industry.

But then disaster struck.

Ma Yu Mi San, one of 20 passengers on board, remembers hearing a loud thud just before the boat flipped upside down.  

She was wearing a life vest, and along with most passengers quickly resurfaced after being plunged into the ocean. As she caught her breath, though, she noticed her elderly mother was nowhere to be seen.

Daw Khin Saung Tin had been sitting below deck with another older lady when the vessel flipped, and both women were now trapped beneath the upturned hull.  

A nearby fishing boat came to try to flip the boat upright, but its engine wasn’t big enough. By the time a second boat arrived and helped finish the job, both women had drowned.

The tragedy marks the first time holidaymakers have died in the region since the Myeik islands began opening up to travellers in recent years amid a nationwide tourism boom.  

It is a blow to tour operators in the picturesque archipelago, threatening to erode faith in the industry’s safety standards in a country where maritime disasters are alarmingly common.   

The tourism industry has already taken a hit in Myanmar as some foreign travellers steered clear, put off by violence that erupted in Rakhine state in 2017.

Operators ‘failed to take adequate responsibility’

Police captain Nyut Win of Kyunsu Myoma police station, which has jurisdiction over the region where the accident happened, told Myanmar Now that the boat was travelling above the speed limit when it hit a floating log and capsized.  

The driver was arrested on suspicion of reckless driving, negligently endangering life and causing death by negligence, the latter of which carries a prison term of up to 10 years.

Despite that, said Ma Yu Mi San, the companies that organised her holiday have failed to take adequate responsibility for the accident.

She and her mother each paid 350,000 kyat for a 7-day package with Mingapalar Travel and Tours, a company based in Yangon’s Tamwe township.

Another company based in Myeik, Htoo Htet Shein, arranged the boat that later capsized.

Mingalarpar advised her to discuss compensation with Htoo Htet Shein, she said. Htoo Htet Shein, meanwhile, got in touch shortly after the accident to ask if there was anything the company could do to help.  

“It would have been more appropriate to say ‘This is what we’re going to do’ rather than asking ‘What can we do?’” Ma Yu Mi San told Myanmar Now.

“At the time we were so busy with my mother’s funeral we didn’t have time to think about what we should ask of them. So I didn’t give an answer when they asked,” she added.

She is now negotiating with Htoo Htet Shein regarding compensation for her mother’s death. She also wants the company to apologise to all the passengers involved in the accident, she said.

Another survivor from the accident, 80-year-old Yangon resident U Hla Than, said he has received 750,000 kyat as compensation from Htoo Htet Shein.

But the company did not approach him to offer the money, he added; he had to ask for it.

And it was only after hearing about this payout that other passengers realised they might be entitled to compensation.

U Myat Tun, 63, from Yangon, said he received 650,000 kyat from the company.

“We only knew we could ask for compensation after U Hla Than called the company,” he said.  

He added: “We didn’t lose any money in the water, but my wife and I lost our phones. So I only asked them to compensate me for three phones,” he added.

‘We assumed we’d done enough’

Neither of the sums includes a full refund for the passengers’ multi-day trips, which they cut short after the accident. Mingalarpar has yet to offer them any compensation, they said.

And it is unclear whether 14 of the 19 survivors will receive compensation; five survivors live in Yangon and are in contact with each other about compensation. But they have lost touch with the other passengers, who live elsewhere in the country.  

Myanmar Now was unable to reach any of the passengers from outside Yangon.

Ko Lwin Aung, the owner of Mingalarpar, told Myanmar Now that the tour was cancelled by the passengers and not by the company due to faulty engines.

He added that he drove the family members of the victims and other passengers from Myeik to Yangon without charge.

“We had planned to give them a 50% discount on future tours. But they didn’t say a thing and didn’t contact us. So we assumed we’d done enough,” he said.

Myanmar Now made repeated attempts to reach Htoo Htet Shein by telephone but was unsuccessful.  

While the police have said the boat was going above the speed limit when it crashed, the tour operators, local travel associations and government departments have made no public statement about the cause of the tragedy.

U Thein Myint Swe, chairperson of the Myeik Tourism Entrepreneurs Association, said his organisation has formed a committee in response to the accident aimed at promoting the safety of travellers.

The government suspended Htoo Htet Shein’s tourism business license for a month, he added, because the accident resulted in death.

In July last year, 47 Chinese nationals died in an accident off the coast of the popular Thai tourist destination of Phuket after a speedboat capsized. The incident led to a dip in Chinese tourist numbers and saw authorities scramble to reassure tourists put off by safety concerns.

Myanmar’s ailing tourism industry, which is just a fraction the size of Thailand’s, has so far benefitted from a perception that the country is safe to visit.

But if there are more incidents like the tragedy in Myeik, potential travellers might not keep thinking that way.

“I thought all local and international tourism business owners would take care of their guests and try to give the best service to everyone,” Ma Yu Mi San wrote in a Facebook post earlier this month.

“I believed that. Now I understand I was wrong.”


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