In this photo taken Jan.1, 2013, Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities off the sea in Phuket, southern Thailand. (AP Photo)
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) A growing sense of desperation is fueling a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, with at least 8,000 members of the long-persecuted minority fleeing by boat in the last two weeks, according to residents and a leading expert.
Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, said an average of 900 people per day have been piling into cargo ships parked off Rakhine state since Oct. 15.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million, has an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya. Though many of their families arrived from neighboring Bangladesh generations ago, almost all have been denied Myanmar citizenship. In the last two years, attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds dead and 140,000 trapped in camps, and have undermined Myanmar’s transition to democracy from decades of oppressive military rule.
Lewa said Friday that some Rohingya families have been told the huge cargo ships already have started arriving in neighboring Thailand, where Rohingya face deportation or fall victim to human trafficking.
The vast majority live in the northern tip of Rakhine state, where an aggressive campaign by authorities in recent months to register family members and officially categorize them as “Bengalis” implying they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh has aggravated their situation.
According to Rohingya villagers contacted by The Associated Press, some were confined to their villages for weeks at a time for refusing to take part in the “verification” process; others beaten or arrested.
More recently, dozens of men have been detained for alleged ties to the armed militant Rohingya Solidarity Organization, said Khin Maung Win, a resident from Maungdaw township, adding that at least one reportedly died from injuries sustained during interrogation. Lewa had similar reports.
Rakhine state spokesman, Win Myaing, denied any knowledge of arrests or abuse.
“There’s nothing happening up there,” he said. “There are no arrests of suspects of RSO. I haven’t heard anything like that.”
Every year, Eid al-Adha, celebrated by Muslims worldwide, marks the beginning of a major exodus of Rohingya in Rakhine state, in part due to calmer seas but also because it is a final chance to spend time with family and friends.
But there seems to be a growing sense of desperation this year, with numbers nearly double from the same period in 2013.
Lewa said a number of Rohingya also were moving overland to Bangladesh and on to India and Nepal.
The United Nations, which has labeled the Rohingya one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world, earlier this year confirmed figures provided by Lewa about a massive exodus that began after communal violence broke out in 2012, targeting members of the religious minority.
It said at least 86,000 Rohingya had fled Myanmar in the last two years.
It was not immediately clear where the newest arrivals were landing. After paying hefty bribes and at time enduring beatings, near starvation and other abuses in jungle camps most have in the past travelled onward to Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries, where they also face tremendous difficulties.
Associated Press writer Esther Htusan contributed to this report.