Myanmar authorities on Wednesday arrested nearly 50 Rohingya Muslims in Yangon region as they attempted to flee the country for Malaysia, a lawmaker said, while a separate group of Rohingya detainees appeared in court in Ayeyarwady region to face charges on traveling without official permission over their earlier attempt to flee.
The 49 Rohingya picked up included 28 woman, 18 men, and three children in a wooded area in Hlegu township, said Myat Marlar Tun, a lawmaker in Yangon’s regional parliament.
“They were arrested last night,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They are being interrogated. The authorities will transfer them this evening.”
“I don’t know if they will be sent to Insein Prison or someplace else,” he added, referring to the notorious detention center on Yangon’s outskirts.
Thazin Myint Myat Win, an attorney representing the Rohingya, told RFA that the detainees will appear in court on Friday.
“They are going through medical tests,” he said. “The authorities are preparing their case files and getting testimonies. They will go on trial tomorrow.”
It was not immediately clear whether the 49 Rohingya would be charged with traveling without official permission, or with immigration offenses.
The Rohingya were from Kyaukphyu, Sittwe, Minbya, and Buthidaung townships in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Thazin Myint Myat Win said.
“The police think there could be more of them in the woods, and they are still searching,” he said.
Another group of 93 Rohingya, who tried to leave Myanmar for Malaysia by boat in November but were caught by naval authorities and arrested, appeared Thursday in a courthouse in Pathein township for another hearing in their ongoing trial on charges of traveling without official permission, RFA has learned.
They face up to one to two years in prison with hard labor or a fine if they are found guilty.
The adults are being detained in Pathein Prison, while most of the children are being held at a police station, though infants and toddlers have been allowed to stay with their mothers.
‘Target of traffickers’
Rights advocates say officials are still not addressing the reasons why the Rohingya are putting themselves at the mercy of traffickers in order to flee the country.
“Whenever we observe human trafficking problems, we find the traffickers are targeting the people who want to leave their homeland due to instability and other reasons,” said Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, a Yangon-based organization that advocates for the protection and promotion of human rights in the country.
“So, people from Rakhine state become the target of traffickers,” he said. “They want to leave the country, but the authorities are not taking their actions seriously.”
Only when they do will they be able to prevent human trafficking gangs and brokers from exploiting those who flee, Aung Myo Min said.
Noting that traffickers favor unstable areas where there is little or no rule of law or protection by locals, he suggested that authorities begin actively monitoring trafficking routes and prepare for possible scenarios to prevent people from being taken from the country,
Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, said authorities must address the underlying causes pushing the Rohingya out of the country illegally.
“The government needs to learn and address the root causes of the problem — why they are being trafficked, why they are falling victim to traffickers, and what it needs to do to rehabilitate the victims.”
“The government needs to think about these questions,” he said. “But now they are giving them prison sentences after they arrest them and are sending them back. This is not the answer.”
Diamond previously told RFA 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.
In recent years, thousands of Rohingya have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by human traffickers and bound for other Southeast Asian nations, especially Muslim-friendly Malaysia. Traffickers charge hundreds of dollars for each person they transport.
A military-led crackdown on Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine state in 2017 left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 members of the minority group across the border and into Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling displacement camps.
Others live in displacement camps inside Rakhine state where they were forced to go following communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 that displaced more than 120,000 Rohingya.
The Myanmar government has been shutting down the camps one by one and relocating the Rohingya to other settlements in accordance with recommendations made in an August 2017 report by an advisory commission led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to help resolve the religious and ethnic divisions in the unstable region.
Reported by Nandar Chan for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.