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Andaman Sea Dispatch: On the High Seas, a Fruitless Wait for an Unwanted Minority

As a result of the Thai warning, the Phoenix retreated into international waters. Mr. Cauchi, the captain, worried that we might miss the fishing skiff crammed with 36 Rohingya if it chose to hug the coast on its journey south.

With Thailand and Malaysia not eager to accept boats, it’s difficult to see anything but disaster if the seaborne migration of Rohingya picks up again.

As we scoured the waters north of Thailand’s Similan Islands, news arrived from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, where around 120,000 Rohingya have been imprisoned in internment camps since 2012. The boat with 36 Rohingya had turned back because of engine trouble.

Andaman Sea Dispatch: On the High Seas, a Fruitless Wait for an Unwanted Minority
Andaman Sea Dispatch: On the High Seas, a Fruitless Wait for an Unwanted Minority

The Phoenix, stocked with life jackets and a full medical clinic, would not be saving any Rohingya this sailing season. The monsoons would soon be coming, making the Andaman too dangerous to cross.

A few days later, a different story emerged from Rohingya leaders in Sittwe. The boat, they said, had been intercepted by Myanmar maritime authorities less than 30 nautical miles from where we were waiting. Mr. Cauchi’s calculations had been right.

The week before, another vessel laden with Rohingya had been captured by Myanmar patrol boats. In both cases, those on board were arrested and charged with the crime of being “illegal migrants.”

That designation is meant to highlight the supposed foreign roots of the Rohingya, who the Myanmar government contends originally came from Bangladesh. But it also raises a question: If the Rohingya are truly foreign interlopers in Myanmar, why are they being stopped from leaving?

“They don’t want us here and they don’t want us to go,” said U Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer now interned in Sittwe. “It makes our lives impossible.”

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