Rohingya Boatpeople Sentenced on Immigration Charges

By Lawi Weng 22 June 2012

Eighty-two Rohingya boatpeople have been sentenced to one year in prison by a court in Ye Township, Mon State, charged with violating immigration laws after they were rescued at sea last month by Mon fishermen while sailing to Malaysia.

The 82 were sentenced on June 19 by a township court in Ye following their arrest in Tavoy [Dawei] by Burmese marine authorities. They were apprehended in Tavoy only after they had attempted one more time to sail to Malaysia following their rescue in Ye Township, some 150 km farther north on the Mon coast.

May 25 article here: http://www.irrawaddy.com/archives/5072

“Each of them was sentenced for one year for violating an immigration law, which does not allow them to travel,” said a police officer in Ye who spoke to The Irrawaddy by phone on Friday.

He said that of the 84 people that had been picked up by marine authorities, only two had not been imprisoned—because they were children.

“The boatpeople are all currently being held in Moulmein Prison where they were sent on Tuesday,” said the policeman.

According to NGO the Arakan Project, 108 ethnic Rohingyas—or “Bengalis” as the Burman press prefers to call them—set sail from Sabrang in Bangladesh on May 10. Among the passengers was a woman with her two children who was trying to join her husband already living in Malaysia.

It is unknown whether the boatpeople originally set off from western Burma and stopped in Sabrang on their intended journey to Malaysia.

They were rescued in the Andaman Sea by Mon fishermen who spotted their boat in distress with engine failure. The fishermen towed them to Aim Dein village in Ye Township where they were fed and given water by local villagers.

Although they could not speak Burmese, the boatpeople were apparently able to convey to Mon locals that many of their fellow passengers had died at sea from disease or starvation, and their bodies had been dropped overboard.

Having repaired the engine on their boat, the 84 remaining people (originally reported as 85)—only one of whom is a woman—departed from Aim Dein on May 23, and it is assumed but not confirmed that they were picked up and detained some days later off the coast of Tavoy.

According to the policeman who spoke to The Irrawaddy, the Tavoy authorities then sent all the boatpeople by land back to Ye where they faced charges. They were detained at a local football stadium because there was not enough space in the local jail. On June 19 they were sentenced in absentia while being held at the stadium, and were then moved to Moulmein for incarceration.

The two children have been separated from their family or families and are currently being held in Thae Koung village in Kawzar Township, south of Ye, according to a local Mon Buddhist monk.

“It is unacceptable that these boatpeople are sentenced on immigration charges for being caught in their own country,” said Chris Lewa, the director of Arakan Project. “This is a result of statelessness and one of the root causes to the recent violence that needs to be urgently addressed.”

Maung Kyaw Nu, the president of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand, appealed last month to Burmese MPs and to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to assist the almost 2 million Rohingya living in Burma and elsewhere.

Rohingya people perennially leave their homes and families in Burma and Bangladesh where they face extreme discrimination and are denied citizenship.

The Muslim Rohingya often find they have little alternative but to try to travel illegally across the Andaman Sea to try to find work in Thailand, Malaysia or another third country.

They are frequently described by human rights groups as “one of the most persecuted people in the world.”

The Rohingya issue drew international attention in 2009 when the Thai military was accused of intercepting boatloads of Rohingyas, sabotaging their vessels, and abandoning them at sea.

Earlier this month, a series of deadly incidents led to riots and sectarian violence in Arakan State between ethnic Rohingyas and Buddhist Arakanese. Many Rohingyas have subsequently attempted to cross the border into Bangladesh, but those caught have been sent back to Burma.