The government of Myanmar says it is determined to stop the departures of migrants fleeing religious persecution in places like this bitterly divided port city, but it will not budge in its refusal to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, fled the country in recent months, setting off a regional crisis when boatloads of migrants were abandoned at sea or abused and held for ransom by traffickers.
But the government insists that most of the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis, and says it has no plans to alter policies that strip them of basic rights and confine more than 140,000 to a crowded, squalid government camp here.
“There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis,” U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office, said in an interview this week.
Under international pressure, as crowded vessels baked and bobbed in the ocean for days with no country willing to take them in, regional leaders met in Bangkok last month, and the immediate crisis was relieved when the migrants were granted temporary refuge.
But any hope that Myanmar might have been persuaded to soften its position was quickly dispelled.
When a government delegation returned from the talks, the state news media hailed the officials as managing “to refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar.”
And those people, despite the reports of horror stories at sea, are no less desperate to leave.
“I can’t stand living here anymore,” said Nur Islam, a fisherman who has languished for two and a half years in the sprawling government encampment. “I have children, and I can’t feed them.”
Two of his six children left by boat for Malaysia this year, and although he has not heard from them, he says he is ready to go, too.
“If I get my hands on any money,” he vowed, “I’m going to Malaysia as soon as possible.”
SOURCE: THOMAS FULLER
The New York Times