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Buddhist hardliners in Arakan State are planning a day of protest against moves to help desperate migrants found adrift on boats in the Bay of Bengal, organisers said on Sunday, 7 June.
Arakan, also known as Rakhine, is one of Burma‘s poorest states, and a tinderbox of tension between its Buddhist majority and a heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom live in displacement camps after deadly unrest erupted there in 2012.
A regional migrant crisis is upending a fragile equilibrium that has since settled on the state.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma in recent years, alongside Bangladeshi economic migrants, mainly headed for Malaysia and Indonesia.
The exodus was largely ignored until a crackdown on the people-smuggling trade in Thailand last month caused chaos as gangmasters abandoned their human cargo on land and at sea.
Some 4,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have since washed ashore in the region while the UN estimates that around 2,000 others are still trapped at sea.
After years of turning a blind eye to the exodus, the Burmese navy in the last fortnight discovered two boats with more than 900 migrants who were brought to Arakan.
Naypyidaw insists most of them are from Bangladesh and has vowed to send them across the border. It has also stuck to its line that the Rohingya are not fleeing persecution.
The government has yet to clearly state what will happen to migrants who are not deemed to be from Bangladeshi territory.
But the two rescue operations have stirred anger among Buddhist hardliners and citizens in Arakan, who want the central government to cease helping any migrants.
Local groups met in state capital Sittwe on Saturday.
“The meeting decided to stage a protest on 14 June against keeping Bengalis from Bangladesh in Rakhine state,” Soe Naing, a coordinator for social programmes in Rakhine who attended the meeting, told AFP.
“We will contact other towns in Rakhine state as well to join in protests on that day.”
The Burmese government does not recognise the 1.3 million Rohingya living in Arakan as citizens. It classes them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many trace their origins back generations.
The Rohingya face daily prejudice and a series of restrictions on their movements, family size and job opportunities.
Many Buddhist nationalists in Arakan want them pushed out of the region altogether.
“We will ask to send them back. The Bangladeshi government has to accept them. Our government must pressure Bangladesh as well,” Soe Naing said.
Some 150 of the 900 migrants are expected to be sent back to Bangladesh on Monday after authorities on both sides of the border agreed on their origins.
But the others currently languish in limbo in a series of fetid border camps as authorities wrangle over which country they belong to.
Neither nation has shown a willingness to accept them and rights groups are concerned some could be pushed to the wrong side of the border.
AFP was able to access a border camp on Sunday holding women and child migrants, many of whom said they hailed from Burma’s western state and wanted to return to their families.
Su Su Nw, a Rohingya from Maungdaw in Arakan, said only 12 of the 72 women on board her boat were Bangladeshi.
“I do not want to go to Malaysia after suffering like this,” she said.
“I want to go back home. I want to work in Myanmar [Burma],” she said, adding that she was unable to travel in Arakan because, like many fellow Rohingya, she does not have a national identity card.
Another 22-year-old woman, who said she was Muslim and hailed from the Rakhine town of Buthidaung, said she had gone to Malaysia to try and find a husband.
“I want to go back to my parents as soon as possible. I want the authorities send me back home quickly,” she said.