Passengers aboard crowded ship say traffickers and captain abandoned them without food or water, and left them to die.
Yangon, Myanmar – Hundreds of demonstrators, including Buddhist monks, have marched in Yangon against what they say is “bullying” by the international community about Myanmar’s stance on the Rohingya ethnic minority group.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar in recent months claiming fear of persecution, and many are still languishing at sea as they wait to seek asylum in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
A spokeswoman for Wednesday’s protest, held by nationalist and religious groups, insisted the humanitarian crisis was not caused by Myanmar.
“These people are not from Myanmar,” Sandy Thin Mar Oo said, yelling through a loudspeaker to the protesters who gathered before marching the streets.
“Don’t blame Myanmar alone,” she said, encouraging the crowd to yell slogans after her. “Don’t bully Myanmar.”
Human rights groups and the UN have warned of a spiralling humanitarian crisis and have urged Myanmar to provide better conditions for the Rohingya, who are considered by the Myanmar government as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
About 400 people, including 40 monks, gathered to show their support for the anti-Rohingya campaign on Wednesday.
Protesters donned T-shirts emblazoned with the captions, “Boat people are not from Myanmar” and “Myanmar should not take the blame for boat people problem”.
U Win Hlan Tha, a monk who attended the rally, said he wanted to show his support of “real” Myanmar people.
“These people are not really us and the international media has got it all wrong,” he said. “What they have to understand is that we are never going to let them in because they have never been one of us.”
Bystanders watched quietly as protesters led a short march through a section of a Yangon suburb where many Muslim residents reside.
Asked what they thought of the campaign, most declined to comment. But others said they fully supported the protesters and their message to the international community.
“We had never even heard of the word ‘Rohingya’ before the riots in Sittwe in 2012,” said one bystander who declined to be named.
“For once, I don’t think the government is lying to Myanmar people,” he said.
Religious tensions are simmering in Myanmar, where at least 240 people have been killed since communal conflict was sparked between Muslim and Buddhist groups in 2012.
Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, said neighbouring ASEAN countries needed to do more for the Rohingya, who had fallen prey to human traffickers because of their desperate situation in Myanmar.
“Just as important, there will be no long-term solution unless [Myanmar] ends its rights-abusing and discriminatory policies toward the Rohinga and joins other countries in taking action against smugglers and traffickers who abuse and prey on them,” he added.