RANGOON — Two women and a man of the Rohingya Muslim minority drowned near the Arakan State capital Sittwe on Friday after they jumped from a boat because police fired rubber bullets at them, a local officer said.
Sittwe Police Col. Tun Oo told The Irrawaddy on Monday that a group of about two dozen Rohingya was travelling on a small boat in an estuary near Sittwe at around 8 pm Friday when a police patrol boat caught sight of them and approached the vessel. He claimed the passengers acted hostile and police were forced to draw their weapons.
“They held knives and prepared to defend their boat. And then we opened fire, shooting [warning shots] into the air first, but they still did not let us get into their boat. Finally, we used rubber bullets like we were trained to and we shot at them,” he said. “They became afraid and jumped out of the boat into the water.”
On Saturday morning, police found the washed up bodies of two women and a man, all in their early 20s, Tun Oo said, adding that eight Rohingya were picked up out of the water and arrested.
“We don’t know what happened to the rest—they disappeared. We could only arrest eight people,” he said, adding that the police were formulating charges against the detainees and would bring them to Sittwe Township Court.
Asked what charges authorities would bring against the Muslim civilians because of their alleged resistance against the police patrol, he said, “We will see, at least we can charge them with travelling without the right documents.”
The stateless Rohingya minority in northern Arakan, which numbers around 1 million people, are denied citizenship rights by the Burmese government. The Rohingya say they have lived there for generations, but authorities claim they are illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh and impose numerous restrictions on the group, such as limiting their right to travel and access to health care and education.
International human rights group accuse the government of persecuting the Rohingya and say police regularly carry out rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings, with impunity.
Many Rohingya try to flee the dire conditions in their impoverished communities and the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Sittwe townships. Some 140,000 Rohingya have been living in dirty, crowded camps since mid-2012 when they were displaced by clashes between Muslims and the Arakanese Buddhist population.
The UN has said that last year an estimated 86,000 Rohingya fled by boat on a perilous journey through the Bay of Bengal in an effort to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist and community leader in Sittwe’s Muslim neighborhood Aung Mingalar, said he had heard that the Rohingya on the boat had been trying to flee from Ohn Taw Gyi 1 camp in Sittwe Township, a site which according to the UN houses some 6,200 IDPs.
“Many of them tried to get out from the camp. Unfortunately, the police found their boat,” he said, adding that the group were travelling in a small boat and probably trying to reach a bigger boat waiting off the coast, which would take them to Thailand and on to Malaysia.
Tun Oo, of the Sittwe police, however, claimed that his patrol boat had tried to stop the boat because the Rohinya passengers were trying to enter Ohn Taw Gyi 1 camp.
“Usually, if we know they are trying to get out of the camp by boat we just ignore it and let them get out… but there are also people who come inside the camp. We have a duty to arrest them if they come inside the camp, this is why we tried to arrest them,” he said.
Sources at Ohn Taw Gyi 1 camp could not be reached for comment.