BANGKOK - A leading activist for Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority says there is a significant exodus - on a scale possibly unprecedented - of Rohingya leaving the country. There are concerns about the fate of those who departed about two weeks ago.
The stateless Rohingya reportedly began boarding cargo ships on Myanmar's coast two weeks ago at the end of the rainy season.
The director of the Arakan Project advocacy group, Chris Lewa, tells VOA some of them should have arrived by now in Thailand but there has been no confirmation of that.
“We are very worried because, so far, none of the families of passengers that have left two weeks ago have been contacted to at least get some confirmation that whatever son, brother or husband had arrived. That means they are not in any place where they can contact people. And so we are not sure where they are,” said Lewa.
Lewa estimates 10,500 Rohingya have fled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the middle of this month, a much larger-than-usual number in such a short span of time.
Lewa blames the exodus in part on reported arbitrary arrests taking place in northern Rakhine state as well as rumors alleging that three people in detention were tortured to death.
“Obviously when community leaders and religious leaders are being tortured to death that creates more fear,” said Lewa.
The Associated Press quotes a Rakhine state spokesman denying any knowledge of arrests or abuse.
A spokesperson for UNHCR's Regional Coordinator's Office in Bangkok, Vivian Tam, told VOA News on Tuesday that if the numbers of those fleeing this month are accurate "it's a very strong start to the sailing season and would be very worrying."
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in isolated communities and are among the world's most discriminated against people.
Mostly Muslims, they are considered by the government of Myanmar, a predominately Buddhist country, to be migrants from Bangladesh.
Rights groups are concerned over Myanmar’s plan to require all Rohingya in Rakhine state to identify themselves as “Bengali” or face indefinite confinement in detention camps.
Known as the Rakhine State Action Plan, it has been widely condemned outside Myanmar.
Recent non-governmental reports on the Rohingya in Thailand and Malaysia called for the two countries to heed “customary international law” to help all refugees.
The reports say Thailand has effectively pushed the problem on to Malaysia, the Muslim-majority country that is the preferred ultimate destination for most of the Rohingya who have managed to leave Myanmar.
An estimated 37,000 Rohingya are in Malaysia with another 15,000 awaiting U.N. recognition as refugees.
U.N. agencies (UNDP and OCHA) say the restriction of the free movement for hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is severely compromising their basic right to food, health, education and livelihoods.