More than 2,200 Rohingya Muslims were apprehended during the past five years as they attempted to illegally leave Myanmar by sea, according to a list of detainees obtained from a naval officer.
Almost 1,500 Rohingya were detained in 2015, more than 500 were picked up in 2018, and about 250 were stopped in 2019, according to the list provided by the officer, who declined to be named, saying he was not authorized to give information to the media.
The figures did not include Rohingya who fled by land from two military-led crackdowns in northern Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017. During the first round of violence, about 90,000 Muslims left their homes and headed across the border and into Bangladesh, while the second, more brutal clampdown forced more than 740,000 into the neighboring nation.
Thousands of other Rohingya have tried to leave Myanmar in the last several years to escape institutionalized persecution, grinding poverty and insecurity in Rakhine state. The persecuted minorities pay human traffickers hundreds of dollars each to transport them to other Muslim-friendly nations in Southeast Asia where they hope to have a better life.
But because of restrictions on their freedom of movement, the Rohingya cannot freely travel inside or outside the country without first obtaining official permission. Those who decide to travel illegally usually do not take identification cards with them, which all Myanmar residents must carry.
A group of almost 70 Rohingya who had fled Rakhine state with the help of traffickers and headed to Malaysia were arrested in Yangon region’s Hlegu township on Feb. 20-21. They are now on trial for violating Myanmar’s nationality statutes for traveling illegally and without documentation.
On Feb. 14, authorities picked up 19 Rohingya, including four children, were arrested in Magway region’s Minhla township of Magway region. The children were taken to a youth training center in Mandalay, while the adults are now on trial for violating nationality statutes, said township immigration officer Aung Pyi Soe.
In a larger incident, the Myanmar Navy on Dec. 15 detained a vessel carrying 174 Rohingya in waters off the country’s southern tip, west of Kawthaung town in the southern Tanintharyi region.
Instead of facing charges, the members of the group were transferred by boat to western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in early January, where immigration officials in the regional capital Sittwe determined their places of origin and sent them back to their villages and internal displacement camps.
On Nov. 28, authorities arrested 96 Rohingya at sea off Pathein township in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region after they boarded a boat from Rakhine.
All the arrested Rohingya have been charged under Myanmar’s Immigration Act and face prison sentences of six months to two years, if found guilty.
‘Not the answer’
Rohingya rights activists have decried the arrests and trials, blaming the Myanmar government for failing to address the root causes of the illegal flight.
Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, said the government must extend basic rights to the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship.
“If the Myanmar government gives us citizen rights, lets us live in our places [of origin] by rebuilding our houses, lets us travel in our country, and abolishes unfair laws that affect us, these flight cases can be reduced,” he said.
Myanmar is the subject of a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice brought by the small African nation Gambia, accusing the Southeast Asian country of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention during the alleged expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh amid the 2017 crackdown.
The campaign of violence left thousands of Rohingya dead, while some of those who tried to flee were subject to torture, mass rape and community burnings.
The government and security forces have defended the action as a counterinsurgency against a Muslim militant group in northern Rakhine. The military has pledged to prosecute soldiers who committed atrocities, and has so far held three courts-martial.
Rohingya activist Thar Aye said it is preferable that authorities send back captured Rohingya to their places of origin rather than prosecute them, and that they focus their efforts on charging traffickers.
“It is a good action,” he said. “Because they are not guilty, it is the right action to send them back to their places of origin.”
But Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights, disagreed, saying that Rohingya who are caught and returned will likely leave again if their situation doesn’t change for the better.
“Even if they are sent back to their places of origin, they are going to flee again if they can’t survive,” Diamond said. “And then, some will be arrested in Myanmar’s territorial waters, though others will make it to other countries.”
“I want the Myanmar government to think about the causes of the problem — why they can’t live in their places of origin, why they are fleeing,” he said. “The government needs to think about these questions. But now it is giving them prison sentences after it arrests them and is sending them back. This is not the answer.”
Reported by Radio Free Asia, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.