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Burma's Fleeing Muslim Refugees Recount Ordeal

The refugees fleeing Burma are apprehended by Bangladeshi border guards.
The refugees fleeing Burma are apprehended by Bangladeshi border guards.
By Radio Free Asia
A Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board, according to refugees.

The three ethnic Rohingyas, whose names have been withheld because they are currently in hiding, said their group put out to sea in six boats heading to Teknaf in the southernmost part of Bangladesh on June 8 at around 4 p.m.

They said that they saw the helicopter take off from the area of Sittwe, the capital of western Burma’s Rakhine state, between 30 and 60 minutes after they launched their boats from Burmese soil.

One of the three refugees -- a young father who made it to Bangladesh after the ordeal -- said that the helicopter then circled above three of the boats that had fallen behind for nearly 20 minutes while setting fire to them.

“We saw something reddish fall on the boats and they instantly caught fire,” he said. “The helicopter was circling in the sky above the burning boats.”

Burmese Denial

Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein denied reports of the attack in an interview with RFA on June 23.

“It is absolutely untrue,” Hla Thein said, responding to the refugees’ allegation that the boats were attacked by a helicopter.

Colonel Htein Linn, minister for border area and security affairs in Rakhine state, said on June 23 that he knew nothing about such an incident.

Aye Maung, a member of parliament for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said that authorities have only one helicopter stationed at Sittwe airport and that it is unarmed. He said the helicopter is used only as transportation for the regional prime minister.

Calls to the Burmese Foreign Ministry and to the Burmese Embassy in Washington went unanswered on June 23.
 
PHOTO GALLERY: A Perilous Journey For Burma Refugees
  • The Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma attempt to get into neighboring Bangladesh by crossing the wide estuary of the Naf River, which marks the border between the two countries.

     
  • Crossing the river in wooden boats, the refugees are fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma.
  • A group of 128 Rohingya people, mostly young men, on nine small boats are intercepted by Bangladeshi border guards.
  • The refugees arrived in the town of Teknaf in the southernmost part of mainland Bangladesh.
  • They were detained on a boat and watched over by the border guards.
  • The Rohingyas have been described by the UN as one of the world's most-persecuted minorities.
  • While the journey was fraught with danger, the refugees said they had no choice as their homes and mosques were being burned down in western Burma.
  • After being detained by the border guards, the refugees are fed, given water, and sent back to sea.

The refugees said that it was unclear from their vantage point whether the crew of the helicopter had made any demands.

“We could not hear any other sound, as the sound of the engines of our boats was much louder. Additionally, our boat was at a distance [from where the incident occurred],” the young father said.

He said that all of the nearly 50 occupants of the three boats that caught fire were presumed killed, including men, women, and “very young children.”

“Most of the children killed in the attack were under the age of 10,” he said.

The three refugees said that many of their family members and close friends were among the occupants of the destroyed boats.

Afterwards, they said, the helicopter flew off in the direction of Sittwe.

“They burned three of our six boats,” the young father said. “Only one of the boats we boarded managed to reach the shore in Bangladesh, as far as I know of.”

He said that his boat had twice been pushed back to sea by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) but that they were finally able to find a location to land and make their way onto Bangladeshi soil.

The members of his group were unaware of what had happened to the other two boats that had escaped the helicopter attack.

The alleged attack could not be independently verified. Staff members from international aid organizations, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program had been recalled to Rangoon for safety reasons following the outbreak of ethnic violence in Rakhine state.

Denied Entry

Earlier, RFA had reported that it was unclear whether the helicopter was of Burmese or Bangladeshi origin but that the refugees had been targeted after being turned away by authorities in Bangladesh.

But the Bangladeshi newspaper "The New Nation" reported on June 22 that the BGB had denied that any such incident had taken place.

"The New Nation" reported that the BGB detained 16 Rohingyas who had tried to sneak into the country, also near Teknaf, over a 12-hour period on June 21.

The latest detentions bring to 946 the number of Rohingyas who have been detained while seeking refuge in Bangladesh since sectarian violence erupted between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state in early June.

At least 2,000 Rohingyas have tried to enter Bangladesh since the clashes began.

Bangladesh says that its resources are already overly strained and has refused to accept the Rohingyas despite appeals from the United Nations to grant them refugee status.

Bangladeshi officials estimate that a total of 300,000 Rohingya people live in the country, with only about one-tenth of them in two official refugee camps in the southern district of Cox's Bazaar.

Burma considers the Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship while Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Burma for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.

Bangladesh Law Minister Shafique Ahmed on June 23 called on Burma to respect the rights of the Rohingyas and to recognize them as citizens of the country.

“The people of Myanmar [Burma] have rights to live in their country and the government of that country should ensure that their citizens can live there,” Shafique told Bangladesh’s "Daily Star" newspaper.

*CORRECTION: RFA has corrected information to show that the Rohingya refugees were attacked by a helicopter shortly after leaving Burma and not after being turned away by authorities in Bangladesh as previously reported.

This story was originally published on the website of Radio Free Asia and was reported by an RFA correspondent in Bangladesh, with additional reporting by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Burmese service; written in English by Joshua Lipes
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Azmi from: Germany
June 22, 2012 22:24
Rohingyas are not illegal migrant which is not true and it has started by Burmese criminal military regime since 1964.It is completely a blame game to ethnic cleansing from Arakan State.Those are killing the powerless helpless and defenseless Rohingyas and claiming that they are very peaceful today.They are killer of peace and harmony on this earth.
I request to the world community to bring the 3 parties ( Burmese, Rohingya and Bengali leaders ) table talk to end this kind of blame game forever.
We have our own language and custom, we Rohingyas have our identity.There are a lot of neighbor countries around the world where it is found similar language and custom as a geographical border and it does not mean all the people have migrated or resettled to there.
In Response

by: Andrew Philips from: Australia
June 23, 2012 09:27
After taking everything into consideration, I have come to the following conclusion.

As of today, many Burmese societies will be willing to accept a Mongolian or a Korean as one of their citizens because they look like them. It doesn't really matter for them for how long they have been living in Myanmar (1 months, 2 months, 3 months or one year). If he or she is a Buddhist, the more chances he or she has to be accepted as Burmese citizen.
But South-Asian descends like Rohingyas will not be accepted as their citizens no matter how long they have been living there (50 years, a century, 2 centuries and so on). Because they look different to them. As of today, to be a Burmese citizen, one must look like them or to be from Mongoloid race. Worse, Rohingyas practice a different religion. So, there is no chance for them to be accepted as its citizens.
I agree to Mr. Mark Farmaner's statement "Anti-Muslim prejudice is endemic in Burmese society and derogatory comments about Muslims are so commonplace. It is quite shocking." They believe in racial purification like Nazis did. I have seen in some of their comments that they even demand to check the DNAs of Rohingyas to be able to decide whether they are Burmese citizens or not, exactly like what Nazis did to confirm whether one was of Aryan race or not. What has DNA to do with citizenship? I wonder how these same people can come to Europe, US, Canada etc and shamelessly demand asylums or citizenship within three to four years at a time when they don't want recognize a people as their citizens, who have been living there at least for a century (here I don't refer to all Burmese but those Xenophobic Burmese)!!!!
In Response

by: m.eyüp from: turkey
June 24, 2012 19:30
I fully agree your conclusion written for Rohinngya crisses.

by: Thomas from: Malaysia
June 23, 2012 08:03
They are the worst persecuted people in the world! But their plight is not known to the world. Everyday they are being killed and Burmese media is hiding the real news and fooling the world by giving made-up stories and one-sided news.

by: Jack from: US
June 23, 2012 13:19
what, peaceful Muslims are being "victims" again? This time in Burma? After Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Lybia, Syria, Thailand, Phillipines, Chechnya.. poor Muslims, everyone persecutes them where they happened to be
In Response

by: Anonymous
June 27, 2012 23:27
The comment became so predictable once i read Jack from U.S..
In Response

by: Reem from: palestine
June 29, 2012 09:40
felt the same as I read the comment then US appeared on the screen! *sigh*, this coming from the biggest anti-Muslim nation on earth. If you approve your government's rutheless killing of Muslims in Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, then oh dear Jack, carry on your quest for "democracy" and freedom.
In Response

by: Jaack from: US
June 29, 2012 12:05
That wasn't me; it was a pathetic RFE/RL staffer who dislikes Muslims. US is the biggest sponsor of terrorism.

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