Nearly 100 Rohingya Muslims who tried to flee Myanmar by boat have been sent back to their home villages and displacement camps in Rakhine state and issued identification documents, local authorities said Friday.
The 93 Rohingya had left their villages near Sittwe township and 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, but were picked up by a naval vessel a week later off the coast of Tanintharyi’s Dawei district in southern Myanmar and held at sea until Nov. 27.
“They began their return by boat on Nov. 27 and arrived at the township [Friday] afternoon, before returning to their villages and displacement camps with the assistance of village heads and camp leaders,” a police officer from Sittwe told RFA’s Myanmar Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The members of the group were originally thought to have all left from the Darpaing displacement camp, but an investigation determined that most of them came from the villages of Thaechaung, Darpaing, Thetkepyin, Say Sayagyi and Basayar, while only “a few” had been living at the camp, the officer said.
Authorities provided all Rohingya in the group over the age of 10 with national verification cards (NVCs)—the first step for any foreigner interested in getting Myanmar citizenship—before returning them to their villages and displacement camps, he added.
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.
Rohingya have balked on accepting NVCs, saying they prefer the restoration of their citizenship.
The Nov. 18 boat attempt marked the third time in recent weeks that Rohingya from displacement camps in Rakhine state have tried 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.
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.
Escape attempts from displacement camps in Rakhine state are common, and some speculate that corrupt officials are also involved in trafficking activities.
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.
Bangladeshi police arrested 10 Rohingya refugees on the night of Nov. 29 as they were about to board a boat to travel to Malaysia after having paid traffickers to set up the journey, an officer told Agence France-Presse on Friday.
Meanwhile, a group of residents of Sittwe have been charged with violating the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law after holding a Nov. 25 protest against the repatriation of Rohingyas and providing them with National Registration Cards (NRCs), which are issued to those who had been considered full citizens under Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law.
One of the protesters, Aye Thida, told RFA Friday that she was notified on Nov. 29 by the chief of Sittwe’s No. 2 Police Station that she had been charged under Article 20 of the law for “using a loudspeaker” during the gathering.
Divisions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists—a recognized minority who make up the majority of residents in Rakhine state—and Muslim Rohingyas have led to communal violence in recent years, and many Rakhine have rejected assessments from the United Nations, rights groups, and Western nations that the Rohingyas have been subjected to ethnic cleansing or have a right to citizenship.
Ethnic Rakhine are also calling for more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government, and earlier this week more than 1,000 activists from 17 townships in Rakhine state demanded the right to control the impoverished region’s natural resources—most notably oil and gas—during a protest in Kyaukphyu township.
Rakhine residents have long complained about the alleged exploitation of their land and natural resources and the uneven division of spoils from large-scale projects that have yielded little or no benefit to poor communities in need of infrastructure, health care, and education.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.