Authorities in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region have returned 93 Rohingya Muslims who tried to flee the country by boat to their displacement camp in Rakhine state, a police official involved in the matter said Wednesday.
“They all were sent back around 9:35 p.m. last night by military vessel,” said Police Lieutenant Colonel Sein Win of the Tanintharyi Regional Police Force. “They will be sent back to where they came from.”
All the Rohingya on the boat are from the Thaechaung village tract in Sittwe township. They left the Darpaing displacement camp on Nov. 18 after paying traffickers 500,000 kyats (U.S. $312) each to take them to Malaysia in hopes of a better life, according to police records.
Authorities picked them up on Nov. 25 off the coast of Tanintharyi’s Dawei district in southern Myanmar and held them at sea until they received instructions from the central government.
Rakhine State Police Chief Kyi Lin told RFA’s Myanmar Service that authorities are now investigating suspected traffickers.
“We will take action against the traffickers,” he said. “Some brokers are under investigation. One suspect was arrested, and two were among the 93 refugees.”
Local residents said one suspect from the Thaechaung village tract was arrested on Tuesday.
The incident was the third time in recent weeks that Rohingya from displacement camps in Rakhine state have attempted to reach Malaysia by boat.
On Nov. 16, naval authorities rescued a group of 106 Rohingya who paid traffickers to take them to Malaysia when their boat’s engine failed, leaving them stranded in the Andaman Sea off Yangon region.
Police have detained two people suspected of trafficking that group of Rohingya and are still investigating them, Kyi Lin said.
Also last week, another vessel with dozens of Rohingya from the Darpaing displacement camp who left Sittwe on Nov. 18 was detained shortly after setting sail.
‘We’re also human beings’
Communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 140,000 others, mostly Rohingya who ended up in displacement camps.
In recent years, tens of thousands of them have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by human traffickers and bound for other Southeast Asian nations.
Instances of Rohingya leaving displacement camps also occurred under the previous government, with some who were caught and returned sentenced to between five and seven years in prison. But authorities say that those who have left since 2016 have been returned to their places of origin after they were intercepted at sea.
A Rohingya who declined to give his name told RFA that those who live in the camps try to leave on account of the hardships they face.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminates against them, denying them citizenship — though many have lived in the country for generations — and access to basic services such as education and health care.
“We’re also human beings, but we don’t have anything to eat or wear,” the Rohingya man said.
“Children beg for money because they don’t have snack money,” he said. “Supplies from the World Food Programme last about 15 days, [and] for the rest of the month, we have to borrow money with an interest fee. Some people fled after the interest rate got higher and higher.”
The Rohingya said that those who decide to leave by boat are aware of the risks that they face, but go anyway.
“They know they might die at sea,” he said. “The whole ship may be sunk, and they can be arrested by authorities. In some cases, pirates have assaulted women. They all know that, but they believe their lives will be better once they can manage to escape.”
Local residents said some Rohingya trying to leave the camps sell off their belongings to pay traffickers for their passage.
Escape attempts from displacement camps in Rakhine state are common, and some speculate that corrupt officials are also involved in trafficking activities.
ASEAN officials in Maungdaw
The factors that push these internal refugees to leave Myanmar are the same ones that have caused the 720,000 or more Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh after being driven out by army campaigns in 2016 and 2017 to resist efforts to repatriate them.
Plans to return several thousand refugees to Myanmar foundered in mid-November when no Rohingya were willing to go home.
Bangladesh and Myanmar, which signed an agreement a year ago to repatriate refugees who want to return voluntarily, now plan to begin sending them back to Rakhine state in January.
The United Nations refugee and development agencies also have signed agreements with Myanmar to assist with the return and resettlement of the Rohingya refugees.
On Tuesday, representatives from the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and officials from the group’s disaster management department began conducting a three-day preliminary study of Myanmar’s readiness to take back the Rohingya by visiting refugee reception centers in Maungdaw township, Myanmar News Agency reported.
Delegates at an ASEAN summit in Singapore earlier this month decided that the regional group’s Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management would assess and evaluate requirements in northern Rakhine state and provide assistance with receiving returnees.
Investigations by the U.N. and human rights groups have detailed instances of ethnic cleansing and atrocities against the Rohingya during the 2017 crackdown, prompting calls for the prosecution of those responsible for the violence before the International Criminal Court or another tribunal.
Myanmar has largely denied that its security forces were responsible for the atrocities and claims their actions were part of a counteroffensive against a Rohingya militant group that conducted deadly attacks in Rakhine state.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.