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A group of Rohingya refugees attempting to reach Malaysia have been given prison sentences of one and a half years each by a Burmese court after their boat ended up on the shores of southern Burma.
The boatload of 63 had travelled from Bangladesh, where up to 300,000 Rohingya reside having fled decades of persecution in their native Arakan state in western Burma. A BBC Burmese report says they were left stranded at sea by their broker 16 kilometres from the coastal town of Kawthaung in Tennasserim division.
Despite the hazardous nature of the journey, hundreds of Rohingya attempt the nearly 2,000-kilometre voyage from Bangladesh to Malaysia each year in search of work. The 63 however are thought to be the first Rohingya jailed under immigration charges in Burma, signifying how government policy works to ensure they are not considered Burmese citizens.
A law passed in 1982 made it impossible for the Muslim minority group to gain citizenship in Burma. The Buddhist government there claims they are of Bengali origin and thus should not be afforded the same rights as Burmese. Various Rohingya advocacy groups argue however that their roots in western Burma can be traced back to before the spread of the now-dominant Theravada Buddhism in the country.
Of the hundreds of thousands living in Bangladesh, only around 28,000 are registered by the UN. Dhaka is concerned that offering official support to all refugees would create a pull-factor for those still living in Arakan state, meaning that the majority eke out a perilous existence in unofficial camps and slums on the edge of Chittagong in eastern Bangladesh.
Following talks in Naypyidaw this week between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Burmese President Thein Sein, however, the Dhaka-based Financial Express claimed Thein Sein had agreed to take back the refugees “after verifying them and as per the agreed criterion between the two countries”.
Kitty McKinsey, regional spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said that while in principle she would welcome any positive solution for the Rohingya, “we will wait to see an official government statement confirming this” before drawing any conclusions from the meeting.
Chris Lewa, head of The Arakan Project, which advocates for the rights of the Rohingya, said she doubted whether Hasina’s visit prompted a breakthrough in the protracted issue of whether the Burmese would accept the refugees back, many of whom have been living in Bangladesh for decades.
The issue of the ‘boatpeople’ shot to global attention in January 2009 when a large group that washed up on the Thai coast were towed back out to sea by coastguards and left to die. Thailand last month intercepted another boatload but later released them.