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Disaster spotlights segregation policies

A handout photo from anonymous Rohingya Muslim minority residents shows people carrying a dead body after a boat capsized off the coast in Sittwe, April 19, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

By Wa Lone
April 23, 2016

As many as 40 people travelling to a market and a hospital from displaced person camps in Rakhine State remained missing yesterday after their boat capsized in bad weather at sea, with nine children among the 22 bodies recovered.

The April 19 accident near Thae Chaung in Sittwe township was condemned by rights groups as the result of a state policy of segregation that limits the movements of the stateless Muslim Rohingya community, who are referred to as Bengalis by the government.

The disaster also drew international expressions of concern, highlighting how the new civilian-led government will be put under the spotlight for its treatment of Rakhine’s Muslim minority, of whom over 100,000 have been confined to camps since communal violence erupted in 2012.

The US said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” by the accident. It linked the tragedy to the “restrictions on access to markets, livelihoods and other basic services in Rakhine State” which it said “can lead to communities unnecessarily risking their lives in an attempt to improve the quality of life”.

Janet Jackson, acting UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar, said, “This accident serves as a tragic reminder of the vulnerability that many communities and families face in this area of Rakhine where their only option is to use this mode of travel in order to access markets, livelihoods, and other basic services that are essential for a dignified life.”

Rakhine police said yesterday that 22 bodies had been recovered. They said 19 people had survived, and five were in hospital.

Lieutenant Colonel Thit San, chief of Rakhine State police, told The Myanmar Times that the boat was bringing Muslims to Thae Chaung village near Sittwe to get medical care, buy goods and visit their relations.

“It is difficult to say someone has responsibility, because what happened was caused by bad weather,” he said. The government had so far not issued any instructions to make further investigations, he said.

Accounts of how many people had been on the crowded boat vary. Police put the number at 49, based on the official manifest, while the UN said more than 60 had been reported on board. Daw Ohmar Saw, a worker for Médecins Sans Frontières in Kyaukphyu IDP camp, said there had been 81.

Police said most passengers had been residents of Sin Tet Maw and Kyauk Phyu camps and villages in Pauktaw township.

Daw Ohmar Saw blamed government restrictions that forced IDPs to make the hazardous journey by sea – when they are given official permission to travel – rather than going by land.

“They do not have enough of anything in the camps, so they have no choice but to travel even when they know that is not safe,” she said.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, criticised last year by her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates for failing to speak out on the crisis in Rakhine State, has yet to make her policies on Rakhine State public.

The UN said in its statement that it would “continue its efforts in support of the government and local authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in Rakhine State, irrespective of religion, ethnicity and citizenship”.

The US embassy said it welcomed the government’s “stated commitment to improve conditions for all people in Rakhine State and promote reconciliation, peace and stability”.

But reflecting the nationalist sensitivities surrounding the issue, many comments on the US embassy Facebook page condemned the US statement of concern, particularly for referring to the Muslims as Rohingya rather than their official label of Bengalis.

Lt Col Thit San said the military-appointed state minister for border affairs would provide K200,000 (US$170) to each family of the victims.

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