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After months of monsoon rains, it is sailing season again in the seas south of Myanmar.
Six months ago, the plight of the Myanmar's Rohingya minority briefly garnered international attention when they were among thousands of starving refugees and migrants abandoned in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.
Human rights groups now say a new refugee crisis looms, as members of the Rohingya minority are excluded from the dramatic reforms taking place in their country. Amnesty International recently warned that thousands more people could set sail in the coming months, risking a repeat of the May crisis.
"With the monsoons over in Southeast Asia, traffickers and smugglers will undoubtedly resume their trade," Anna Shea, a refugee researcher at Amnesty International, wrote last month, urging that regional governments "not wait for another tragedy to unfold."
The momentous changes in Myanmar since 2010, exemplified by the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party in last Sunday’s election, have had little impact on the Muslim Rohingya people.
Most of the Rohingya, who number around 1 million in Myanmar, were barred from voting in the election. They are the largest group of stateless people in the world, having been denied citizenship in Myanmar under a 1982 law, and are subject to numerous legal restrictions, including requiring permission to travel, marry or have more than two children in some areas.
Around 140,000 Rohingya are confined in internal displacement camps since a wave of deadly violence in 2012. “This is like living in an open-air prison,” Muralam, a 36 year-old Rohingya man planning to flee a displacement camp in Myanmar by boat, told Britain’s The Independent newspaper earlier this month. “It is very dangerous to leave, but I prefer it to living here in the camp.”
“While the Rohingya have been persecuted for decades, they have faced an intensified and unrelenting campaign of state-led terror since 2012,” Penny Green, director of the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement last month. “The situation is sufficiently desperate to warrant comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the early 1990s.”
Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar argue that the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while the Rohingya say they have long lived in the country. Nationalists upped anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya rhetoric in the runup the election, and even Suu Kyi told foreign reporters to “not exaggerate the problems.”
Yet the gravity of these problems was highlighted when thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, along with Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty, were stranded at sea for weeks without food or water in May. People smugglers abandoned their boats at sea when Thai authorities launched a crackdown on human trafficking, and the overcrowded and squalid vessels were turned away by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The United Nations counted at least 370 deaths during the crisis, while human rights groups warned that hundreds more may have drowned.
Several thousand people were eventually allowed to stay temporarily in Malaysia and Indonesia, but only until May 2016. It is unclear where they will go next.
Since the rains subsided, there are already reports that hundreds of people left Bangladesh and Myanmar in at least two boats in recent weeks.
"We have had reports of a limited number having left, but not anything like the numbers last year, so far," Joe Lowry, Asia-Pacific spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, told The WorldPost by email. "We want to avoid at all costs the crisis situation which erupted earlier in the year."
Experts say that smugglers are also exploring new trafficking routes to circumvent the Thai crackdown, including taking boats directly to Malaysia, or transporting people overland and by air.
"People are still desperate to leave. If you block one way, people will find another way, and that might be more dangerous and more risky for the people," Julia Mayerhofer, interim executive director of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, told Reuters last month.
Several international organizations have recently warned of a genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
“All of the warning signs [of genocide] are happening to us today,” one Rohingya advocate told the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, earlier this year. “They want us all to go away,” another advocate warned.
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