KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia will deport 1,200 detained Myanmar nationals after the Myanmar military government, which took over in a Feb 1 coup, offered to send three navy ships to pick them up, officials from both countries and two sources told Reuters.
Myanmar, via its embassy in Kuala Lumpur, made the offer to take back its citizens held in Malaysian immigration detention centres last week, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The detention centres typically hold asylum-seekers and refugees, along with others who are in Malaysia without proper documents. Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees, regarding them as illegal migrants.
The officials did not respond to queries as to whether those being repatriated included refugees.
Detainees have in the past included members of the Chin, Kachin and the Muslim Rohingya communities fleeing ethnic conflict and persecution by the military in Myanmar.
Malaysia is home to more than 154,000 asylum-seekers from Myanmar, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. There are also thousands of migrant workers.
The sources said Myanmar had offered to take back only its citizens. Myanmar recognises over 100 ethnic groups but not the Rohingya, who are seen as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
The sources, who requested anonymity, said the navy ships were expected to arrive in Malaysia on Feb 21 and leave two days later.
Malaysia's Director-General of Immigration Khairul Dzaimee Daud confirmed the details, adding that authorities had agreed to hand over the detainees to Myanmar's navy.
"Yes we have agreed. All of them are from immigration depots," he said in a text message, without elaborating.
Win Min Soe, a labour attache at the Myanmar embassy, also confirmed Myanmar's offer.
Spokesmen for the Malaysian prime minister's office and foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
James Bawi Thang Bik, of the Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance of Chin Refugees, said that while Malaysia has regularly deported Myanmar nationals, this was the first time Myanmar's navy had offered to help repatriate its citizens.
He called on Malaysian authorities to work with the UNHCR to determine whether those to be deported included undocumented refugees.
"Refugees are in danger of being sentenced to jail and persecuted if they are sent back to Myanmar," he said.
The coup and the detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi along with scores of others have prompted the biggest demonstrations in Myanmar since a 2007 "Saffron Revolution" that ultimately became a step towards democratic reforms.
In 2017, Myanmar's army drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighbouring Bangladesh in an operation that the United Nations has said was carried out with "genocidal intent".
Myanmar denies the accusation.