Fresh fears of violence are sending more of Myanmar's mainly Muslim Rohingya people fleeing in rickety and overladen boats on a dangerous voyage to Malaysia.
Tensions were heightened on Wednesday with the arrest by Myanmar police of three Buddhist men for plotting to bomb mosques in the western state of Rakhine. Unrest there last year left scores dead and some 140,000, mainly Rohingya Muslims, displaced.
More than 7,000 Rohingya have already set sail in recent weeks, according to activists. Many have to sell possessions and borrow money to afford the price of up to 70,000 baht (S$2,750) for a place in a boat to Malaysia. The risky voyage can take up to two weeks.
Around 1,700 are already being held in detention centres in Thailand, where in recent months there have been two breakouts in which scores fled.
Conditions in Rakhine remain dire for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority regarded by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted in the world.
Tension is rising, with security forces accused of favouring the Buddhist Rakhine majority and under pressure to be even-handed.
The Myanmar government sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, though many families have been in the country for generations.
In New York on Tuesday, the UN General Assembly's human rights committee, in a resolution, called on Myanmar to grant the Rohingya citizenship, and to crack down on violence against Muslims.
According to reports, the general assembly will automatically pass the resolution later this year.
There was no immediate official reaction from the Myanmar government.
But a "verification" process for Rohingya is under way, though it has itself sparked conflict over officials' insistence that they register as Bengalis, not Rohingya.
According to well-placed sources in Myanmar, the government is not averse to giving Rohingya citizenship, but is reluctant to take a public position on the matter.
A Yangon-based analyst who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue, told The Straits Times in an e-mail: "Recognising the Muslims in Rakhine state as citizens is not an issue. It is very probable."
But the Rakhine Buddhist majority in the state and the wider Burman Buddhist majority in Myanmar insist that "Rohingya" is an invented identity for illegal immigrants out to grab Rakhine land.
Government policy for decades has been to not recognise the term, fearing that doing so would grant the Rohingya legitimacy as an ethnic minority.
"The insistence on the recognition of the name 'Rohingya' has stood in the way of resolving the conflict," the analyst wrote.
"On the one hand, a people can call themselves anything they wish.
"But the citizenship issue for Muslims (Rohingya) is connected to the recognition of the name, which is a very explosive issue and will very likely see bloodshed.
"If the name 'Rohingya' and citizenship can be separated, the citizenship issue for Muslims can be resolved over a period of time."
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