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'Massive' numbers of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat: activist

Migrants thought to be from Myanmar's Muslim-minority Rohingya are pictured at a detention centre after they were rounded up in raids on hidden camps in the Thai south, in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on Jan 16, 2013. (Photo: AFP)

October 27, 2014

Yangon -- A climate of fear in Myanmar's Rakhine state is pushing stateless Rohingya Muslims to flee in "unprecedented" numbers, with almost 10,000 people taking to boats in the region in just two weeks, activists said Monday.

A surge in boats leaving from northern Rakhine, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in isolated communities, has seen around 900 people a day making the perilous journey by sea, according to the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group. 

"This is very unprecedented, it’s such a massive number," director Chris Lewa told AFP.

The end of the rainy season usually sees a spike in departures, but arrests and beatings in northern Rakhine combined with worries that authorities were planning to exclude Rohingya from citizenship had lead to this huge rise, Lewa said.

"It seems now that many have decided that there is nothing left for them in Rakhine," she said.

Lewa said some 100,000 people have now fled by sea from western Myanmar since June 2012, when conflict between local Buddhist and Muslim communities spiralled into widespread bloodshed across Rakhine that left 200 dead and 140,000 in displacement camps, mainly Rohingya. 

The boats, many barely seaworthy, head to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond in an increasingly organised smuggling network. 

Myanmar views the Rohingya as immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and denies most of them citizenship, as well as imposing restrictions on travel, livelihood and even marriage.

Lewa said local people have reported arbitrary detentions and spreading fears over citizenship, after a leaked draft "action plan" for the impoverished state suggested those that refused to be identified as "Bengali" could be forced into camps. 

The Rakhine government denied the claims.

"They are spreading misinformation themselves," state spokesman Win Myaing told AFP. "There was no arrest or torture."

The Arakan project is virtually the only organisation monitoring boat departures from Maungdaw in northwestern Rakhine and Bangladesh.

Lewa said the 9,900 people who have left in the last two weeks, mostly from Rakhine, compares to 6,300 in October and 9,100 in November last year. 

Lewa raised concerns that nothing has yet been heard from the wave of boats that left two weeks ago.

Thai officials in mid October said people-smugglers had kidnapped dozens of people -- among them Rohingya refugees -- in Bangladesh and trafficked them to a rubber plantation in southern Thailand.

Rights groups have previously accused Thai authorities of pushing boats back out to sea and holding migrants in overcrowded facilities.

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