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Australia-bound refugees dumped bodies at sea
Myanmar nationals rescued off Sri Lanka's eastern coast lie on the floor at a hospital in Galle, Sri Lanka. Picture: AP/Sri Lanka Navy

A boatload of Myanmar refugees rescued from a sinking wooden vessel off Sri Lanka's east coast after two months at sea had been trying to reach Australia, police say.

Shocking pictures have emerged of the boat people, who were plucked to safety by Sri Lanka's navy at the weekend and taken to the southern port of Galle where they were rushed to hospital to be treated for dehydration and starvation.

A Myanmar embassy spokesman said 32 people were rescued, although initial reports from naval units had suggested there were 38.

The group comprising 31 adult males and a boy had been at sea without food for 21 days when the navy rescued them after being informed by a local fishing boat.

Survivors have told local newspapers there were 130 passengers at the beginning of the journey, and 98 died on the way with their bodies dumped to sea.

They said they were planning to go to Australia after their attempt to enter Malaysia failed.

"We have been told of 32 people rescued and we are waiting to speak to them," embassy spokesman Aung Soe Moe said.

Sri Lankan police said the rescued boat people claimed they were in a group of 130 who set out in three boats just over two months ago with the intention of reaching Australia.

The fate of the others was not known.

Saturday's rescue was the second in less than two weeks.

On February 3, the navy rescued 138 Bangladeshi and Myanmar nationals from a sinking boat. One passenger was found dead.

Local police officials said it was unclear if those identified as Myanmar nationals were Rohingya - members of a stateless Muslim minority described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted groups - who had fled the country.

An explosion of tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine since June 2012 has triggered a seaborne exodus of Rohingya.