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Escaping violence

Ron Corben, BangkokFebruary 13, 2013

Activists say that up to 19,000 people - mostly Rohingya Muslims - have set sail from Myanmar's western Rakhine state to Thailand to escape violence and deteriorating living conditions.

A boat carrying 73 Rohingya refugees is intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand (Photo: AP/dapd)
Image: AP

There are around 800,000 Rohingyas living in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The minority group lives predominantly in the western state of Rakhine. They are not officially recognized by the Myanmar government as an ethnic minority group, and for decades they have been subjected to discrimination and violence by the Buddhist majority.

Viewed by the United Nations and the US as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, many Rohingyas have fled to neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, India and also to Thailand to escape persecution.

Despite the fact that Myanmar has embarked on a series of political and economic reforms, human rights organizations and activists say the situation for Myanmar's ethnic communities has not significantly improved.

Many Rohingya Muslims are fleeing from the northern Maungdaw and Buthidaung cities of Myanmar's Rakhine state, and also from Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, which was the center of sectarian violence last year. The clashes between ethnic Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in the state lead to the destruction of homes, shops and places of worship and has left almost 200 dead and nearly 120,000 people displaced.

Discriminatory treatment and abuse

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says Myanmar needs to address the Rohingya issue urgently.

"There is a need to put concerted pressure on the Burmese authorities to get Rohingyas recognized as citizens. The government should start a registration process to grant citizenship to these people and to end discriminatory treatment and abuses against Rohingyas."

Mohammad Nur, 28, faints while hiding with his wife Samuda Khatun and son Shahid Noor in a house in Teknaf October 30, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)
The UNHCR has urged Myanmar's neighbors to let in refugeesImage: Reuters

The UN says that conditions in the refugee camps in the Myebon town of Rakhine are "particularly shocking," with sanitation there being "very, very poor indeed."

Chris Lewa, director of the non-government organization The Arakan Project, is in regular contact with Myanmar's Rohingyas. She says living conditions in the camps are horrendous and that a number of people don't receive the aid sent to them. "Aid deliveries have been hampered and at times blocked to the Muslim camps."

In its latest assessment, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders calls on the Myanmar government and community leaders to ensure greater security for people in Rakhine in the face of reports of “alarming numbers” of acutely malnourished and ill children in the camps.

"Skin infections, worms, chronic coughing and diarrhea are the most common ailments seen through more than 10,000 medical consultations in the camps since October 2012," the report said.


The violence and difficult living conditions have also driven Rohingyas to risk their lives at sea. Rights groups fear “several hundred” men, women and children from the region may have been lost at sea already. One estimate has put the death toll as high as 500.

Last year, the UNHCR estimated that around 13, 000 people - including Rohingyas from western Myanmar and Bangladesh - fled on boats. And many of the refugees are children. Thailand's English language daily, The Bangkok Post, interviewed 14-year-old Mohammad Ayu from Rakhine state, who is one of many under-aged children to set sail on their own, seeking refuge in Thailand after losing family members to violence in Myanmar. Ayu said children were paying between 5,000 and 60,000 kyats (4.25 euros - 50.57 euros) to board boats. His, he said, had been adrift for weeks before his group was stopped and transferred by uniformed officers and then handed over to a broker.

Activists continue to report that human smugglers are also taking advantage of the situation and earn large sums of money from fleeing Rohingyas.
Regional solution

Rohingya Muslim men, fleeing from ethnic violence in Myanmar between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, are kept under guard after they are brought by Bagladeshi border guards to a boat jetty at Shahporir Dwip in Taknaf, Bangladesh, Monday, June 18, 2012 (Photo: Saurabh Das/AP/dapd)
Thousands of Rohingyas have fled MyanmarImage: AP

According to Thailand Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), almost 6,000 Rohingyas have arrived in Thailand since October last year. The Thai Government is allowing Rohingyas to stay in the country for up to six months. The Thai Foreign Ministry is also holding talks with other states to enable those at the centers to move on.

Colonel Kriskorn Paleethunyawong, deputy commander of Thailand's Songkhla Provincial Police, told The Bangkok Post that the Rohingya migrants should be prosecuted as illegal immigrants like everyone else who enters the country illegally.

Lewa of the Arakan Project has recently visited some of the refugee camps in Thailand. She fears for the well-being of the people living there. "They live in overcrowded immigration detention centers in Thailand. We have seen in the past that people have actually died in custody."

She says a long-term solution is needed to address the issue. "There should be a regional solution as it affects various countries in the region - including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - which cannot solve the problem individually."

Panitan Wattanyagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, backs calls for a regional response: "The international community should come up with better guidelines to separate the people who are seeking work and the people who are really in danger."