YANGON – The Myanmar authorities have arrested about 150 Rohingya suspected of trying to flee to Malaysia, an official told AFP on Friday.
The group of men, women and children was arrested in Thanbyuzayat township in southern Myanmar, the official said, requesting anonymity as no authorisation to talk to the media had been given.
The official did not specify why the group had been arrested, but the Muslim minority faces restrictions on travelling within Myanmar, where rights groups say they live in apartheid-like conditions.
“They were hiding nearby in hilly forest between two villages... We started arresting them late last night after we got a tip-off,” the source said.
According to initial reports, the group had travelled by boat from the western state of Rakhine and planned to travel on to Thailand and then Malaysia by road, the official said.
A number of non-Rohingya suspected of trafficking the group were also arrested, and police were looking for about 30 more people, according to the source.
A military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh with harrowing stories of murder, rape and arson.
Myanmar is facing genocide accusations at the United Nations’ top court following the mass exodus.
Widely viewed in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh, Rohingya are denied citizenship – along with access to healthcare and education – and require permission to travel.
The arrests come days after the junta said it would begin welcoming back members of the minority living in Bangladesh as soon as April, in a pilot repatriation programme.
The plan would see Myanmar “repatriate about 1,500 displaced persons”, state media on Friday quoted a senior border affairs official as saying.
The border official did not give a specific timetable and added that Myanmar had “not received any response yet” to the plan.
The returning Rohingya would be placed in a “transit camp for a short period” before being resettled in 15 villages, the official said.
“For their safety and security, we have police stations near the 15 villages,” it added.
Thousands of Rohingya risk their lives each year making perilous journeys from camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.
Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has dismissed the Rohingya identity as “imaginary”, was head of the armed forces during the 2017 crackdown. AFP