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Mass exodus of Muslims from Myanmar following arrests

October 24, 2014

Record numbers of Muslim Rohingya flee western Myanmar after government launches crackdown.

Unprecedented numbers of Muslim Rohingya have been leaving Myanmar on boats for Thailand and Malaysia following a campaign of arrests, a leading NGO said Friday.

"In one week we have seen 8,000 Rohingya leaving northern Rakhine state -- the amount of people who left the region per month in 2013," Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, told Anadolu Agency.

Last week’s flight is believed to be the largest since violence erupted between the Rohingya minority and Buddhists in western Myanmar two years ago.

"Myanmar police let the boats come to the estuary of the Naf river in daylight and have even stopped asking for money from the Rohingya before they embark," Lewa added, referring to the water frontier between Myanmar and Bangladesh. "It looks as if it is planned."

While the number of Rohingya escaping persecution in Myanmar increases every year as the rainy season comes to an end, there are other factors that explain the unusually large exodus this year, she said.

Citing a recent series of arrests of community and religious leaders by local authorities, Lewa claimed some had died under torture, which had "provoked a sort of panic."

The project believes the government may be using a recent al-Qaeda announcement of a new South Asian branch as a "pretext" for a crackdown on the Rohingya.

In the video, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri heralded the development as "good news" for Muslims in Myanmar "where they would be rescued from injustice and oppression."

Since 2012, 200 people -- mostly Rohingya -- have been killed and 140,000 made homeless. Tens of thousands of Muslims have paid large amounts of money to smugglers to flee on cramped boats in the hope of finding work in Thailand, Malaysia or Australia.

In southern Thailand, some fall prey to human traffickers and corrupt local officials.

The latest influx to southern Thailand comes as a shocking video purportedly shows the brutality inflicted on Rohingya refugees in trafficking camps.

The footage, currently being examined by Thai immigration police, appears to show two men raping a Rohingya woman in a jungle camp in the country’s south.

"If the video is authenticated, it may be the first real evidence of the brutal treatment of captives in the secret camps run by human traffickers in the jungles of southern Thailand," the Phuketwan news website reported Thursday.

Lewa, who has interviewed hundreds of Rohingya in southern Thailand, was cautious about the clip but added: "We know that the people who cannot pay the sums asked by the traffickers are the object of violence."

In the past, survivors from traffickers’ camps have shared testimony that violence, rapes and killings were a way of extracting ransom payments from victims’ families.

The Myanmar government refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship, claiming they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

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