A total of 154 people were rescued alive after the ferry sank early Saturday (Oct 15) on the Chindwin River, about 72 kilometres north of the city of Monywa.
But rescuers have found only bloated corpses floating in the water since then, and fear the toll could reach 100 once they raise the craft.
“So far we have recovered 32 dead bodies,” said Sa Willy Frient, director of the local relief and resettlement department who is overseeing the operation.
“We are trying to raise the boat using a crane after tying it with strong ropes. After we lift it out, the death toll will be higher.”
Sa Willy Frient estimated 240-250 people – around 100 more than its capacity – were on the boat, along with heavy cargo.
Survivor Hnin Lei Yee, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, was travelling with her husband and one-year-old daughter to celebrate the Buddhist Thadingyut festival with her family.
Her baby was killed in the disaster. She still does not know her husband’s fate.
“It happened very fast,” she said. “The window was open so I had a chance to get out of the boat.
“I cannot swim so I had to hold on to a plastic float and finally the rescue boat came to save my life.
“In the morning, I heard there was a dead child in the hospital and I went there. I saw my daughter dead,” she said, weeping.
Some 30 teachers were thought to be among the passengers, along with dozens of students from Monywa University and workers heading home for Thadingyut.
“"I am really so sorry,” said Sai Khaing Myo Tun, vice president of Myanmar’s teachers’ federation. “This incident has terrified us very much.”
“The teachers often have to use such unsafe transportation, especially when they (come to) get their monthly salary.”
Four of the boat’s staff have been arrested and will face legal action. Authorities are still hunting for one crew member and the ferry’s owner.
Local lawmaker Shwin Htay said people were devastated by the scale of the disaster as he called for the boat operators to face justice.
“I have never known of a boat sinking where so many people have died in this area,” he said.
Boat accidents are common in Myanmar. People living along the nation’s long coastline and flood-prone river systems rely heavily on often overcrowded ferries for transport.
At least 21 people, including nine children, died in April after a boat capsized off the coast of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine.
In March last year at least 52 people lost their lives off the west coast when an overloaded ferry sank in rough waters.