Myanmar’s navy detained a vessel at the weekend carrying about 174 Rohingya in waters off the country’s southern tip, and authorities are trying to determine their origin, a military spokesman told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday.
The boat was discovered on Sunday 150 nautical miles in the Andaman Sea west of Kawthaung town in the southern Tanintharyi Region and among the 174 Rohingya aboard are people thought have ran away from refugee camps in Bangladesh, said Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesman.
“A navy ship patrolling in Kawthaung area spotted a peculiar vessel on its radar and went to the area to examine it. It was about 8 a.m. and around 155 or 160 miles west of Kawthaung town,” he told RFA.
“We have learned from the initial interrogations that they arrived at the location south of St Martin Island in Bangladesh around 10 p.m. on Dec. 2. A Bangladeshi middleman transported these people on small boats on Dec. 4, 6, and 10,” said Zaw Min Tun.
Reuters news agency quoted an assistant director from the Kawthaung township administration office as saying it remains unclear whether the 82 men, 69 women, three young boys, and 19 young girls are from Rakhine state or refugee camps in Bangladesh. Seven crewmen, including the boat’s captain, were also detained.
Politicians and activists urged the government to provide humane treatment to the passengers, who were picked up just days after Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar before the U.N.’s top court in the Netherlands on genocide charges for the army’s alleged expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
“If these people are actually from Rakhine state, charging them under immigration laws and giving them prison sentences are not acceptable and are a violation of their rights of free movement,” said activist Nickey Diamond from the NGO Fortify Rights.
Diamond told RFA that boat people and other Rohingya refugees flee hardship without identification papers, while many can document that they come from Rakhine and are not illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh.
“All of these people are collectively framed as Bengalis entering into the country illegally and given prison sentences. These kinds of acts have become the evidence of persecution of the Rohingya population in lawsuits at international court like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case,” he said, referring to the court where Aung San Suu Kyi appeared last week.
“Even the people who live in Rakhine state are being treated badly. These people with unknown origins are far more vulnerable,” said Aye Lwin, a community leader working toward interfaith unity in the predominantly Buddhist country.
“Their place of origin should be investigated. Afterwards, the authorities should view them from a humanitarian perspective. We know that there are laws, but aside from acting in line with the laws, the authorities should also act humanely,” he told RFA.
Thar Aye, a Yangon-based Rohingya politician said the authorities should take action against the human traffickers who arranged the trip, while the people on the boat should be rescued.
“It is possible that these traffickers have lured the people from the camp and charged them for arranging these trips,” he told RFA.
“Some people know nothing about the laws and have fallen into the hands of traffickers. These kinds of innocent people should be rescued and only the traffickers should be charged,” added Thar Aye.
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun, Aung Theinkha, and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.