Fate of Rohingya Boat People Remains Unknown as They Are Returned to Myanmar’s Rakhine State

2020-01-10
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Rohingya refugees are seen aboard a vessel in the Andaman Sea before they are picked up by the Myanmar Navy in waters off southern Myanmar's Thanintharyi region, Dec. 15, 2019.
Rohingya refugees are seen aboard a vessel in the Andaman Sea before they are picked up by the Myanmar Navy in waters off southern Myanmar's Thanintharyi region, Dec. 15, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Myanmar Commander-in-Chief's Office

Scores of Rohingya Muslims detained in December by the Myanmar Navy aboard a boat in the Andaman Sea as they attempted to leave the country have been transferred to western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a coastal forces commander and state immigration minister said Friday.

“We sent these 172 Muslims to Sittwe on Jan. 8 by navy vessel No. 617,” Colonel Thant Zin Oo, regional chief of the Coastal Command, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

The Rohingya left a detention center on an island where they were being held and were being taken to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, he said, but added that he did not know where they would be sent once they arrived there or if any further action would be taken against them,

The group was accompanied by 42 officials from the military, the police, and the health, immigration, and general administration departments, said Kyaw Min, minister of Rakhine state’s Immigration and Human Resources Ministry.

“I don’t think they have arrived yet in Sittwe,” he said. “It will take at least three or four days to get there.”

“We haven’t heard any news,” he added. “If they arrive there, they will have to inform the Rakhine state government and then they will be receive orders about what they should do next.”

Immigration officials in Sittwe will check the members of the group to determine whether they are from Rakhine or Bangladesh and will “do whatever they have to,” Kyaw Min said.

RFA was unable to reach Win Myint, Rakhine’s minister of municipal affairs, for comment.

The Myanmar Navy discovered the boat with the 172 Rohingya on Dec. 15 in waters off the country’s southern tip, about 150 nautical miles west of Kawthaung town in Thanintharyi Region. Military officials believe that those aboard had run away from refugee camps in Bangladesh.

They were picked up just days after Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended the country before the U.N.’s top court in The Netherlands on genocide charges for the army’s alleged expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling displacement camps.

Aye Lwin, a Muslim community leader working toward interfaith unity in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, told RFA in an earlier report that authorities should treat the Rohingya boat people humanely by returning them to their homes without taking action against them. Otherwise, authorities would risk looking bad for punishing Muslims for running away from oppression and discrimination.

Activist Nickey Diamond from the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights told RFA on Dec. 22 that Myanmar authorities should issue travel documents for the Rohingya so that they can go wherever they want rather than being forced to return to Rakhine state.

Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminates against them by denying them citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to jobs, health care, and education.

Reported by Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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