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Myanmar’s Navy Seizes 2 Boats Carrying Over 200 Migrants

Myanmar police officers speaking to migrants on a fishing boat off the coast of Rakhine State on Friday. CreditMyanmar Information Ministry, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Wai Moe
May 22, 2015

YANGON, Myanmar — The Myanmar Navy “seized” two boats carrying more than 200 migrants, the country announced on Friday. It said the boats had been found close to shore in the Bay of Bengal, about four nautical miles from Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State.

A statement by the government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, said that on Thursday it had arrested 208 passengers — all under the age of 40, including 10 teenagers — who were on a boat owned by a Thai citizen from Ranong, Thailand. The other boat belonged to a Burmese man from Myeik in southern Myanmar and had no passengers, the statement said.

The statement said that the passengers were Bangladeshis from “Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and north of Dhaka,” and that 17 crew members and three Bangladeshi interpreters had also been arrested.

“All of them are from Bangladesh,” said U Zaw Htay, deputy director general of the president’s office. “Now all the boat people and crew members are under investigation, and we are treating them well from a humanitarian point of view.”

“We will send them back after all is clear,” he added. “We need cooperation among regional countries, particularly Bangladesh.” He said the episode was the second time that the navy had seized traffickers’ boats in Myanmar’s waters.

Some members of the Rohingya ethnic group in Maungdaw disputed the government’s account, saying that the detained passengers included Rohingya from Myanmar.

Speaking by phone from Maungdaw, on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, U Hafizul, a Rohingya who works with an international nongovernmental organization there, said: “Not only Bangladeshis, but Rohingya villagers from Maungdaw and surrounding areas were on the boat, too. They are now detained at a village school near Maungdaw.”

The Myanmar government denies that the Muslim Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group, contending that they are Bengalis and denying them citizenship.

Many Rohingya were placed in camps across Rakhine State after brutalsectarian violence in Myanmar in 2012 that left more than 300 people dead, most of them Muslims. Altogether, there are estimated to be more than a million Rohingya in Myanmar.

“This year, more Rohingya are fleeing because they feel hopeless” after three years of living in temporary camps, Mr. Hafizul said.

Photographs posted online by the Myanmar Ministry of Information showed scores of people crowded inside the wooden boat that was seized, many of them shirtless. They appeared frightened as security forces examined them.

Thousands of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are believed to be stranded at sea in Southeast Asian waters, after being abandoned by human smugglers. On Thursday, Antony J. Blinken, the United States deputy secretary of state, visited Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, to discuss the issue with President Thein Sein and the country’s military commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

During the meetings, Mr. Blinken shared Washington’s concerns about the migrant crisis in the region and urged Myanmar to work with regional partners to address it, according to a statement by the United States Embassy. Indonesia and Malaysia agreed this week to allow migrants stranded at sea to come ashore and to shelter them while they await resettlement, and the United States has sent military aircraft to help find and rescue them.

Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s office said that the general told Mr. Blinken that the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are known, “doesn’t want to see the crisis of the boat people, and Myanmar doesn’t force citizens to flee.”

“Therefore,” the statement from the commander’s office said, “we have to think where the boat people came from.”

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