‘Many drowned’ in attempt to flee sectarian violence in Myanmar

Many drowned’ in attempt to flee sectarian violence in Myanmar

YANGON – First, one body appeared floating in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, then another, and another, until those on board the little fishing boat that had gone to their rescue began to lose count.

Those bobbing lifeless among the waves had set out the night before, so desperate to escape the growing sectarian violence in Myanmar that they were prepared to risk boarding a dangerously overcrowded boat.

At least 130 people had clambered aboard, but the boat foundered – whether it capsized because of the weight of bodies or because it struck rocks remains unclear.

The sinking last week was the worst reported incident resulting from the outbreak of violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar.

The latest assessment from the Myanmar government – which regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants – said 89 people had been killed in clashes between Oct 21 and 30.

“The situation is dire. The United Nations (UN) is doing its best, but it is trying to find more funding to help them,” said Mr Chris Lewa, Director of the Arakan Project, an NGO working with the Rohingya.

With at least 32,000 people displaced by the latest violence – and at least 107,000 since trouble broke out in June – thousands have sought safety in refugee camps around the Myanmar town of Sittwe.

Those camps are at crisis point, according to Refugees International, which estimates that nearly a quarter of children were malnourished.

The death toll and fear of further violence have prompted many of the Rohingya to look for sanctuary in neighbouring Muslim countries.

Many have concluded that the only realistic escape route is by sea. Those that have tried to get away have found that those countries are unwilling to accept them.

The UN has urged Myanmar’s neighbours not to close their borders, but the appeal brought no immediate change of heart.

Some of those who have fled, such as the victims of last week’s sinking, headed for Malaysia, where people-smugglers will take them for a fee.

Others are looking closer to home – to Bangladesh and Thailand – but neither country wants them.

Ms Melanie Teff, a researcher with the charity who visited Sittwe in September, said the outlook for peace is grim. “There is a total lack of hope for the Rohingya. They have been rejected by many countries,” she said. “The only way out is for the international community to act on the current situation.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has called for an end to communal killings in Myanmar following talks with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday.

He also said the European Union is ready to pledge €4 million (S$6.3 million) aid to the state.

Ms Suu Kyi told the BBC that she could not speak out in favour of Rohingya and insisted that she will not use “moral leadership” to back either side. Agencies

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