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Burma Boat Rescue Called Off

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— Authorities in Burma Monday reported no signs of additional survivors after a boat in the Bay of Bengal, loaded with Muslim Rohingya, capsized and sank Sunday. It is among the latest incidents generating increased concern about the plight of the stateless minority.

A Muslim community leader in Sittwe said the ill-fated journey from Burma to Bangladesh began Saturday evening with about 80 people, including women and children, on board a vessel overloaded with smuggled goods.

Aung Win said when the boat sank in the Bay of Bengal nearly everyone drowned. Five bodies were recovered by relatives and buried on a nearby beach. “Eight to 10 people survived but those people are hiding in nearby villages because they are afraid of police arrest so nobody can confirm the survivor number,” said Win.

While many ethnic Rohingya have lived in Burma for decades, the government does not recognize them as citizens.

Rights groups said the community has long faced discrimination, and repeatedly been victims of police brutality. Last year, violence against the community escalated, driving many from their homes and into temporary camps. Periodic violence continues.

A Burmese security officer and a U.N. official in the country, both speaking on condition they not be named, said several more Rohingya died during violent clashes in recent days in the Pauktaw area, about two hours north of Sittwe by boat.

A Rohingya man was found dead near a Buddhist pagoda where a group had gone to collect firewood from the Sin Tet Maw camp for internally displaced persons. The Rohingya blamed the killing on “Rakhine thugs.”

In a subsequent confrontation near the camp with angry Rohingya who went to retrieve the body, sources say, police opened fire. One person was killed and at least two more were wounded.

There are also reports that the body of another Rohingya man was found Sunday morning and that a Rakhine woman was killed in what appears to be a retaliatory attack.  

A veteran political analyst on Burma, Richard Horsey, said there is a perception that Burma's police have become more assertive in confronting the Rohingya.

“This new readiness to use force, of course, comes with huge risks because for a police force that is not well equipped and trained to deal with riot situations the use of force can also go wrong,” Horsey said.

Since last year's escalation of violence in Rakhine state, many Rohingya have been leaving, primarily for Thailand and Malaysia, believing their lives will improve in those countries.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees said as many as 1,500 people have fled in the last week. But the U.N. and other international organizations saidthey have not been able to gather more specific, reliable information.

Non-governmental groups express concern that once on other shores the undocumented refugees face exploitation by human traffickers.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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