More than 1,000 monks and activists staged a protest Wednesday in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon urging the government not to accept the stateless Rohingya Muslims who have been rescued or are still stuck at sea after fleeing the country.
About 20 local nongovernmental organizations organized the protest urging the government not to give in to pressure from the international community to accept the Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people or grant the Rohingya minority more rights.
The protestors also accused the United Nations and western countries of unfairly blaming Myanmar for the boat people crisis, in which thousands of trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have washed up on shores in Southeast Asia in recent weeks.
“The reason we organized this protest today is because the U.N. and representatives from 15 countries are having a meeting in Bangkok on May 29 to discuss the boat people issue, and they may pressure the Myanmar government to accept these people,” an unidentified male protester told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Myanmar blames the current boat people crisis on human trafficking and smuggling networks and has rejected claims that are widely held among human rights activists, experts and the Rohingya themselves that Myanmar’s policies towards the Muslim minority have caused them to flee.
Representatives from the U.N. and several countries will meet in Bangkok on Friday to discuss how to resolve the humanitarian crisis of boat people stranded at sea for months and tackle the issue of human trafficking.
“We are reiterating that the president [Thein Sein] and the government never accept the Rohingya and boat people,” said Parmaukkha, a senior monk of Ma Ba Tha, a group of nationalistic Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
The Myanmar navy, which seized a boat used by people smugglers last week, said the 200 people found onboard were mostly Bangladeshis seeking better economic prospects in Southeast Asia.
But people on the boat said 150-200 Rohingya had been on board at one point, but were taken away by the traffickers the week before the navy rescue while the Bangladeshis remained behind, Reuters reported.
Thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution and poverty in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and economic migrants from Bangladesh have tried to land in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia since a Thai crackdown on people smugglers in early May forced traffickers to abandon them at sea.
The U.N. estimates that more than 2,500 migrants could still be stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, although other international agencies have put the figure at 3,000-4,000 people.
Maltreatment by smugglers
Rohingya and other survivors of the boat voyages told new York-based Human Rights Watch about maltreatment by smugglers and traffickers in Myanmar, abuse and neglect aboard ships, and poor sanitation and a lack of food while at sea for two months.
“Survivors describe how they fled persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“Interviews with officials and others make clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people.”
The U.N. estimates that about 130,000 ethnic Rohingya 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 in the country’s western Rakhine State.
Myanmar’s government views the Rohingya, who number around 1.1 million people in the country, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived there for generations.
“These people are not a recognized ethnic minority, and we are here to remind people of that,” said an unidentified monk at the protest in Yangon. “We have to tell the government to be resolute on that issue.”
Reported by Kyaw Zawe Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.