Myanmar authorities have confirmed that more than 130 Rohingya Muslims who were part of a larger group detained in December by the Myanmar Navy in waters off Tanintharyi region while traveling to a third country are residents of Rakhine state, a district official said Thursday.
The 133 were among the more than 170 Rohingya picked up by coastal forces in the Andaman Sea as they attempted to leave Myanmar. All of them were transferred by boat to western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in early January, where immigration officials in the regional capital Sittwe have been working to determine whether they are from northern Rakhine state.
“We have conducted an assessment and sent back [home] those who could be confirmed as residents of Myanmar,” said Soe Aung, administrator of Rakhine’s Muslim-majority Maungdaw district.
“Those who still have homes in their villages are returning to their homes,” he said. “Those who don’t have homes will live with their relatives.”
Win Hlaing Oo, assistant director of a Rohingya refugee reception center in the district’s Nga Khu Ya village, said officials could only accept the boat people once they had confirmed proof of their residency in Myanmar.
Officials had first been asked to access the identity of the boat people in Kawthaung in Tanintharyi region, where they were taken after they were picked up at sea, he said.
“So we have had to decide if they are genuine residents and work through many procedures,” Win Hlaing Oo said.
Officials have not be able to confirm the status of 20 others among the group, and there have been delays with submitting reports to senior authorities, he said.
Authorities have meanwhile determined that one of the detained Rohingya is a citizen of Bangladesh, and they are negotiating with Bangladeshi authorities for that person’s repatriation, he added.
Maungdaw district resident Hammad Shari said it will be difficult for the Rohingya boat people to return to their villages of origin, many of which were burned during a military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine in 2017.
Security forces targeted Rohingya communities in a rampage of violence following deadly attacks on police outposts by a Muslim militant group, killing thousands and driving more than 740,000 others to Bangladesh.
“In Maungdaw region, many villages are gone,” Hammad Shari said. “I don’t know how these people can go back to their homes.”
The root causes
Nickey Diamond, an activist with Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights, said authorities must address the fundamental issues that are driving the Rohingya to flee Myanmar.
“In Rakhine, their lives are tough, and so they try to run away,” he said. “Those who get caught are given prison sentences. When they are in a condition in which authorities cannot send them to jail, they have been sent back to where they came from. Returning them does not resolve the ongoing problems.”
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them full citizenship as well as subjects them to discriminatory policies such as denying them freedom of movement. They also are prevented from accessing jobs, education, and health care.
Though Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to repatriate some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine and now live in sprawling refugee camps, none of those approved for return have gone back, citing fear of further violence and ongoing denials of full citizenship and other basic rights.
“I don’t see the government trying to address the root causes,” Diamond said. “After the Rohingya [boat people] have returned, they may run away again if the conditions are not right for them.”
“The government should try to understand why they are running away and what pushed them out, and resolve the root causes of the problem,” he said.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.