The death toll from a boat disaster off the Myanmar coast continues to rise as more than 20 victims are reported dead after an overloaded vessel carrying dozens of Muslim minority Rohingya people capsized early on Tuesday.
“We found 18 dead bodies yesterday and four this morning,” a rescue worker told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We saved 20 people, and we will continue rescue works for two more days. “
While the death toll is expected to increase, the United Nations said 21 are dead, including nine children. They all died after a boat capsized in choppy waters as it approached the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, according to the U.N.
Rough seas and an overloaded boat appear to have caused the disaster, but the status of the Rohingya may have contributed as their travel is restricted.
Rohingya recognition issue
Myanmar does not formally recognize the Rohingya as one of the country's patchwork of ethnic minorities.
A rising tide of Buddhist nationalism has in recent years deepened hostility towards the group -- most of whom are rendered stateless by a web of citizenship laws.
While many Rohingya trace their roots in the country back for generations, most of the passengers were inhabitants of Sin Tet Maw, in Paukaw township, a camp for Rohingya Muslim minority members forced from their homes by bouts of communal violence since 2012, according to the Associated Press.
The boat's passengers had received special permission to travel by boat to the market in Sittwe from Paukaw -- a journey through the mouth of a wide river that then skirts several miles around the coast to the state capital, AFP reported.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have been forced to live in apartheid-like conditions since unrest between Buddhists and Muslims left hundreds dead in 2012.
Their movement and access to services, including health care, is severely restricted by authorities in the Buddhist-majority country.
U.N. and U.S.comment
"This accident serves as a tragic reminder of the vulnerability that many communities and families face in this area of Rakhine," said Janet Jackson, the UN's resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar.
"Their only option is to use this mode of travel in order to access livelihoods, and other basic services that are essential for a dignified life," she said. “The United Nations will continue its efforts in support of the government and local authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in Rakhine State, irrespective of religion, ethnicity and citizenship.”
The United States also weighed in as the embassy in Myanmar posted a message on its Facebook page offering condolences to the victims’ families and mild rebuke to the government.
“Restrictions on access to markets, livelihoods and other basic services in Rakhine State can lead to communities unnecessarily risking their lives in an attempt to improve their quality of life,” the Facebook post reads. “We welcome the Government of Myanmar’s stated commitment to improve conditions for all people in the Rakhine State and promote reconciliation, peace and stability.”
Reported and translated by RFA's Myanmar Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.