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Big flow of boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh feared

Nirmal Ghosh
The Straits Times
January 7, 2013

Regional governments are bracing for a further influx of boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh, headed to Malaysia mainly, that could number in the hundreds, maybe thousands. 

Some incidents in the past two weeks indicate there could be more this year than the estimate for last year. 

Last Friday, Vivian Tan, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said that last year, about 13,000 boat people - mainly Rohingya Muslims, including many from Myanmar's Rakhine state - fled Myanmar and Bangladesh. At least 485 people are known to have drowned or been lost at sea. 

"These numbers are very worrying," Tan said. "The fact that even women and children are increasingly risking this journey shows the growing sense of desperation among the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh." 

Last week, the Thai authorities deported a group of 73 Rohingya who had sailed from Myanmar. 

Colonel Manat Kongpan, who heads Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command for the Phuket region, told the local journal Phuket Wan that the military was intercepting "two to three" vessels a week. About 3,000 boat people had been found since October, when the sailing season started; it usually reaches its peak in December and January. The voyage from Teknaf in Bangladesh can take from two to six weeks. 

Thailand was heavily criticised for turning Rohingya back onto the high seas without any provisions in a previous instance. It now has a policy of "helping on" the boat people, by providing fuel and provisions. Most want to go to Malaysia, which has agreed to receive them. 

Apart from Malaysia, no country in the region wants this "hot potato" on its shores, said a diplomat in Yangon, who asked not to be identified. 

Most of the Rohingya leave from Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 live largely in both official and informal camps - little more than makeshift shacks sprawled over the countryside outside Teknaf, a town named after the river that marks the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar. 

Adding to the flow now are some Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state, aid agencies say. Violence erupted between Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese there last year, and the situation remains tense. The diplomat said: "Feelings are very fervent; the two communities hate each other." 

The violence first flared up last June, after which Rohingya who had their settlements razed were accommodated in camps. 

A second round of attacks in October drove more into the camps, and further entrenched a physical segregation of the Rohingya and Arakanese. 

The Arakanese form the majority in the area and consider the Rohingya - whose population in Rakhine state is estimated at around 800,000 - illegal immigrants. 

The area has a long history of informal cross-border migration and conflict, with Muslims and Buddhists having been armed by different sides during World War II as Burma sought independence from Britain. But many Rohingya are now second- or third-generation settlers there. 

The Arakanese, the majority Burmans and the Myanmar government do not recognise the term "Rohingya", which appeared in the mid-1940s. 

They describe the Rohingya as "Bengalis" from Bangladesh's Chittagong division. Rohingya are not on the Myanmar government's list of ethnic minorities, which renders them stateless. 

Bangladeshis do not consider them Bengalis either. The Rohingya in Bangladesh, who reside mostly in the Teknaf area, are seen as a potential security threat because they compete with locals for scarce resources and jobs. They are also potentially a sensitive nerve in relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are fears of Rohingya militancy - which has sputtered on and off for decades - re-emerging in response to persecution in Rakhine. 

Dr Tasneem Siddiqui, who heads the University of Dhaka's Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, told The Straits Times that boats carrying goods from Myanmar go to Teknaf's Shahpuri island, where they are unloaded. Human smugglers then load them with both Rohingya and Bangladeshis, and they set off for Malaysia. 

The Bangladeshi authorities know who the smugglers are and should be more proactive in stopping the trade, Dr Siddiqui said. 

"And there has to be scope for formal migration, otherwise people - whether Rohingya or Bangladeshi - will take desperate steps." 

Malaysia's willingness to take in the Rohingya is seen as a bright spot in a gloomy situation. "The big question is how long it will last," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. 

Meanwhile, some governments and aid agencies are scrambling to keep at bay a humanitarian disaster in Rakhine's squalid camps, which now accommodate upwards of 100,000 Rohingya. 

Saudi Arabia has provided millions of dollars in financial aid, and Iran last week sent 30 tonnes of essential supplies. Last September, Jakarta sent seven tonnes of aid. 

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is due to visit Rakhine state this week.

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