Myanmar authorities on Friday rescued and detained more than 100 Rohingya Muslims from displacement camps in Rakhine state who were stranded at sea as they attempted to reach Malaysia, a police official said.
The 106 people from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the state capital Sittwe spent roughly two weeks adrift in the Andaman Sea offshore of Kyauktan township in Yangon region after the wooden vessel’s engine failed, Captain Ye Min Oo from the township’s police station told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“What we have learned is they are from relief camps near Sittwe,” he said. “They had been at sea for more than 20 days.”
“They didn’t come as illegal immigrants [into our territory].” Ye Min Oo said. “Their destination was Malaysia but the vessel drifted to this area because they ran out of fuel.”
The 64 men and 42 women are being kept for the night at Shwe Maw Wun Center, he said, adding that authorities are providing the Rohingya meals and medical checkups.
A Rohingya woman named Eilia said an agent came to the camps and told them they could be taken to Malaysia if they could pay, but she didn’t mention the amount of money, Ye Min Oo said.
Eilia told Agence France-Presse that the group left the camps because of a lack of food and because the Rohingya were told they could find work in Malaysia.
Some residents were not pleased that police brought the group to stay temporarily in Kyauktan township
“The authorities haven’t shown us they are providing complete security,” one resident, who declined to give his name, told RFA. “Think of the fact that these people landed near our village. Didn’t they have any patrols? Where is the navy? For them to get to our place unnoticed is so dangerous. It could be fatal.”
About 140,000 Rohingya were transferred to IDP camps in Rakhine state following communal violence with Buddhists in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead.
In the last several years, tens of thousands of Rohingya from the camps have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by smugglers.
Authorities had to rescue many Rohingya stranded on rickety boats in 2015 after smugglers left the boats adrift in the Andaman Sea, as Thai authorities cracked down on their illegal activities.
The Myanmar government views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and denies them citizenship and basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
Myanmar is in the process of closing down IDP camps Rakhine’s Sittwe district and in Kyauktaw and Myebon townships to fulfill a recommendation by an advisory commission that proposed ways to solve sectarian tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in the state.
'A long legal process'
The boat rescue came a day after Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during a military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017 refused to return to Myanmar under a repatriation program that officials from both sides had scheduled to begin on Thursday.
Myanmar planned to begin processing an initial group of about 2,200 refugees as part of an agreement with Bangladesh signed a year ago to return some of the more than 720,000 Rohingya who left the country during the brutal campaign, which included indiscriminate killings, rape, and arson.
The Myanmar government has largely denied that its forces committed the atrocities and has defended their actions as a necessary counter-insurgency against a group of militant Rohingya who carried out deadly attacks in northern Rakhine state.
The refugees say they want Myanmar to accept them as an official ethnic group, guarantee their safety, and grant them full citizenship rights before they voluntarily return.
On Thursday, some refugees in the Bangladeshi camps staged protests to show their opposition to the plan to begin returning some of them to Myanmar.
The Myanmar government is insisting that those who return obtain National Verification Cards first before they can apply for citizenship, if they meet certain criteria.
“This kind of issue lies not only on the government but also on parliament and on others,” said Chan Aye, director general at the International Organizations and Economic Department under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It will be a long legal process even if it is taken into consideration. But there’s no reason to consider it.”
Rohingya activist Thar Aye told RFA that the matter won’t be resolved until all the basic demands of the refugees have been addressed, including resettling them in their places of origin, returning their lost lands, and giving them freedom of movement and access to education.
Rohingya leaders from refugee camps in Bangladesh on Friday asked Dhaka to officially recognize them as a Myanmar ethnic group and said they will send a letter to the government and army stating the demands that they have outlined for their return.
“We stopped yesterday’s protest against the attempt to send us back to Myanmar after a Bangladeshi official of the same rank as a regional [military] commander in Myanmar told us we can live in the refugee camps if we don’t want to return,” said Mohammad Juhral, a Rohingya leader from the Balukali refugee camp.
“He said that Bangladeshi authorities will send us to Myanmar only if we voluntarily want to return, but that they won’t force us to return,” he said.
'They are frightened'
Ye Htoo, deputy administrator of Maungdaw district, where returning Rohingya will be processed and temporarily housed in a transit camp, said Friday that officials there have not yet been contacted by Bangladeshi authorities regarding the halted return of the refugees.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement who is in charge of the repatriation program, said that the Rohingya who want to return have been stopped or threatened in the refugee camps by those who are opposed to going back to Rakhine state.
“Some didn’t get the forms they are required to fill out, and some were not allowed to fill out the forms,” he said. “Among those in the camps over there who said they wanted to return, some were threatened or beaten up and killed in some cases.”
“Because of that situation, even though there are many who want to come back, they dare not do so because they are frightened,” he said. “It’s not because they do not believe our word. There are many who believe us.”
Myanmar has not provided any evidence to support Win Myat Aye’s claims.
Myint Thu, permanent secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that there are three types of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh — ones who don’t want to return to Myanmar but rather resettle in a third country such as Canada; some who don’t want to return because they are linked to the Rohingya Arakan Salvation Army which conducted attacks in Rakhine in 2016 and 2017; and others who don't want to return because they have relatives and businesses in the state.
Min Lwin Oo, an attorney with the Asia Human Right Commission, said that the Bangladeshi government knows the repatriation process won’t be easy and that the country will have to continue to house and feed the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in camps while Myanmar officials run checks on the refugees to determine their eligibility for return.
“This process will take time for the Myanmar government to deal with with many issues, including checking the refugees to determine if there are any terrorists among them,” he said.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Wai Mar Tun, Khet Mar, Nandar Chann, and Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane, Khet Mar, and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.