Anti-migrant protests planned in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine

Anti-migrant protests planned in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine
Migrants found at sea housed in a refugee camp in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

YANGON - Buddhist hardliners in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state are planning a day of protest against local authorities helping desperate boat migrants found adrift in the Bay of Bengal, organisers said Sunday.

Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest states, is a tinderbox of communal tension between its Buddhist majority and a heavily persecuted Rohinghya 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 Myanmar in recent years, alongside Bangladeshi economic migrants, primarily headed for Malaysia and Indonesia.

The exodus largely went ignored until a crackdown on the people smuggling trade in Thailand last month caused a regional crisis as gangmasters abandoned their quarry on land and sea.

Some 4,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have since washed ashore in the region while the UN estimates around 2,000 others are still trapped at sea.

After years of turning a blind eye to the exodus, Myanmar's navy in the last fortnight discovered two boats with more than 900 migrants who were brought to western Rakhine state.

Myanmar insists the majority of the migrants are from Bangladesh and has vowed to send them across the border. It has also stuck to its line that Rohingya are not fleeing persecution.

The country is yet to clearly state what will happen to migrants who are not deemed to be from Bangladeshi territory.

The rescue operations have stirred anger among Buddhist hardliners and citizens in Rakhine who want the central government to cease helping any migrants.

Local groups met in the state capital Sittwe on Saturday and vowed to hold a protest next weekend.

"The meeting decided to stage a protest on June 14 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," he added.

Myanmar's government does not recognise the 1.3 million Rohingya living in Rakhine as citizens. Instead it classes them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many trace their origins back generations.

The Rohingya face daily prejudice and a raft of restrictions on their movement, family size and access to the job market.

Many Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine want them pushed out of the region altogether and are opposed to the central government offering stranded boat people any help.

"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 inside a series of fetid scrubland 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.

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