The majority of boat people who have landed in a southern province of Thailand are from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a Myanmar nongovernmental organization official said.
Htoo Chit, executive director of the Thailand-based migrant rights group Foundation for Education and Development told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday that he had met with 13 women and 13 children on Saturday at a refugee camp in Phang Nga, a Thai province on the shores of the Andaman Sea to the west and Phang Nga Bay to the south.
The men who had accompanied the women and children were not at the refugee camp because they had been sent to an immigration center, he said.
“It seems like some of them are from Buthidaung [township] and Maungtaw [district] of Rakhine state, and they were traveling together with people from Bangladesh,” he said, adding that some of the Myanmar refugees he met had a high school education.
Some of the children Htoo Chit talked to spoke Burmese or the Rakhine language, but most of the women spoke the Rohingya language, he said.
“I have seen people from the Bangladeshi embassy come and check them,” Htoo Chit said. “If they found people from Bangladesh, the embassy sent them back to Bangladesh.”
The United Nations estimates that 130,000 ethnic Rohingya, who are Muslim, have fled Myanmar by sea since a violent and deadly clash with majority Buddhists in mid-2012.
Others, who were displaced by the violence, remain housed in camps in Myanmar.
“They said they lacked jobs and their rights had been violated,” he said of the refugees from Rakhine state who left Myanmar.
Those who have fled by sea have fell victim to human trafficking in the Bay of the Bengal after paying smugglers to transport them to other countries, only to be intercepted by traffickers who have held them captive and demanded ransom for their continued passage.
With regard to some reports that said the boats were transporting refugees who were not from Myanmar, Htoo Chit said the initial set of boats carried people from Myanmar, who were then transferred to boats from Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.
The regional humanitarian crisis has seen thousands of Rohingya stranded at sea for months as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have pushed back boatloads of them along with Bangladeshi refugees fleeing economic hardship in their country.
The people from Buthidaung and Maungtaw told Htoo Chit him that they had been caught after they were abandoned by human traffickers at sea, who left the boat fearing arrest by Thai anti-trafficking officials.
The Rohingya said their relatives who live in foreign countries paid traffickers to take them to a foreign country, but those who could not afford the reportedly U.S. $3,000 each that the traffickers demanded were sold to fishing boats or tortured or killed, according to Htoo Chit.
Most of them said they had relatives in Malaysia who had provided for them to go that country or other nations, he said.
“For people who are from Myanmar, the Myanmar government should check them and let them live legally in Myanmar by not violating their human rights,” he said. “If they do so, these kinds of problems will decrease. At the same time, the related countries involved in the boat people issue should discuss and solve the problem together.”
Trying to work together
Myanmar government officials met on Monday met with foreign diplomats in the commercial capital Yangon to discuss the plight of the boat people and work towards a solution.
About 80 diplomats from different countries, including 40 foreign ambassadors, Union Minister Aung Min, Minster of the President’s Office Soe Thein, Union and Immigration Minister Khin Ye, Information Minister Ye Htut and Attorney General Tun Shin attended the meeting.
“Diplomats have explained their difficulties regarding the boat people, and Myanmar ministers explained Myanmar government’s policy and attitude to these boat people,” said Ngun Kyone Lainin of the Myanmar Peace Center. “I heard that the ambassadors from Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh asked whether it would be beneficial for them to work together to resolve this problem.”
Roland Kobia, European Union ambassador to Myanmar, told Agence France-Press that most countries are calling for a regional dialogue to resolve the issue.
Meanwhile, the rights group U.S. Campaign for Burma called on the U.S. government on Monday to provide immediate search and rescue operations for stranded Rohingya refugees at sea, as well as urgently pressed President Thein Sein to address the citizenship of the stateless Rohingya.
“The root cause of this exodus is the Burmese government’s stripping of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities of their white card status,” said Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, in a press release.
Myanmar’s government views the Rohingya, who number around 1.1 million people in Rakhine state, as “Bengalis” because it believes they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.
As of March 31, the government started revoking “white cards” from them, which served as temporary identification, leaving them stateless and disenfranchised.
“We welcome President [Barack] Obama’s announcement of his renewal of authority to maintain sanctions on Friday, May 15,” Quigley said. “However, the United States must impose more pressure on Burmese President Thein Sein who has the responsibility and the power to protect and provide humanitarian assistance to those in internally displaced camps in western Rakhine state.”
Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.