BANGKOK (AP) — Malaysian authorities said Monday that they have stepped up patrols to intercept a boat thought to be carrying dozens of people from Myanmar’s beleaguered Rohingya Muslim minority seeking refuge in the country.
Meanwhile, an expert on the plight of the Rohingya said the sighting of the boat people does not portend a new exodus by sea.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said it has increased patrols in the Malacca Straits and Andaman Sea, especially near Langkawi island, after hearing of Sunday’s stopover of a fishing boat with 56 people at an island in southern Thailand’s Krabi province.
The boat stopped at the island because it had been damaged in a storm. Thai officials said it was repaired and supplied with food and fuel, and sent on its way to predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the destination sought by those aboard.
Rohingya, treated as undesirables in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, used to flee by sea by the thousands each year. About 700,000 have fled western Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh since last August to escape a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by Myanmar’s army.
Thailand has an official policy of pushing back boat people from its shores. Those who have landed in recent years — especially during a deluge of boat people in 2015 — have been kept in detention centers. There have also been many cases of Rohingya landing in Thailand being taken by human traffickers and forced into near-slavery, held for ransom or otherwise abused.
Most Rohingya prefer to head to Malaysia, whose dominant Malay Muslim population makes it a more sympathetic destination, although its policy on allowing them in is somewhat nebulous.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an independent research and advocacy group, said the boat that stopped at the Thai island came from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state but distant from the violence that has uprooted hundreds of thousands.
“There will be one or another like this arriving. We can say that there have been a few attempts of boats fleeing, but they were aborted and this boat seems to be the first to make it,” she said.
“It is also the end of the sailing season as well. So, we do not expect a mass exodus at least until after the monsoon,” said Lewa, referring to the usual onset of the annual monsoon season in April. She noted as well that Myanmar’s border security is tight enough to limit unauthorized boat departures.
A displaced Rohingya man who lives near Sittwe confirmed Lewa’s account, saying there had been only three boats that he knew of that had left Sittwe since December, one going to Bangladesh and the second seemingly having disappeared. He said he assumed the boat in Thailand was the third one.
“Many people are eager to leave, but at the same time they are afraid of the risks they are taking,” said the man, Faizel, who wanted to be identified by just one name out of concerns for his safety. “Some Rohingya have been arrested while trying to flee to the cities by land inside Myanmar and some are arrested by the coast while trying to flee by boat.”
He said he had heard that people were paying 300,000 kyats ($225) per person on departure from Myanmar, but no one was clear how much they had to pay on arrival in another country, a common practice.
“But now is not a good time for people to leave because of the weather. Winter time would have been better, but during the past winter, we had really strict security here and it was difficult to leave,” he said. “Whenever the weather is better and the security loosens up, many people will leave.”