THA PYAY TAW, Myanmar – Every day before sunrise, dozens of fishermen, shivering against the cold, shove out onto the Bay of Bengal on makeshift rafts made out of plastic jugs, bamboo and twine, just steps away from the sturdy and much safer wooden boats they had used for years.
They were barred from using their boats three months ago by Myanmar authorities who say they’re trying to prevent insurgents from entering or leaving the country by sea. The ban is one small part of a sweeping and violent counter-insurgency campaign in Rakhine state, home to the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, where authorities have been accused of widespread abuses.
Desperate to feed their families, Rohingya fishermen in the coastal villages that dot Rakhine’s Maungdaw district they skirt the ban by setting out on dangerous, jerry-rigged rafts that use yellow cooking oil jugs to keep them afloat. The vessels are not technically boats, and therefore not technically illegal.
“What is the difference for us?” asks 35-year-old Mohammed, a Rohingya fisherman and the father of four children in Tha Pyay Taw village. “We will die in the village from starvation if we don’t go out, or we can risk our lives to get some fish and fill our stomachs. We have nothing to eat.”
The Associated Press is identifying Mohammed only by his first name out of security concerns.
As long as the villagers leave their big boats on the shore, the police allow them to bob along the choppy waves — for a price.
As noon approached on a recent day, dozens of villagers paddled their plastic rafts back to shore, fresh fish in tow. As they unloaded the day’s catch, a policeman holding a sack approached and demanded some fish.
The fishermen described the transaction as typical.
“We have to give it to them or they won’t allow us to go again to the sea,” said Kalumya, a 40-year-old fisherman who uses only one name.
The police officer refused to speak to The Associated Press.
Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, the Rohingya have long faced persecution in Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship. The latest outbreak of violence was triggered by October attacks on guard posts near the Bangladesh border that killed nine police officers. While the attackers’ identities and motives are unclear, the government launched a massive counter-insurgency sweep through Rohingya areas in western Rakhine state.
Most of Myanmar’s more than 1 million Rohingya live in Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh.
Tha Pyay Taw was not directly affected by the violence, which occurred in villages a two- to three-hour drive away. But “for reasons of regional security, the fishing boats were banned from going out on the sea,” said Hashim Ulah, the government-appointed village administrator in Maungdaw.
Mohammed said the villagers have no good options.
“There is the risk of getting shot by the navy in Myanmar or Bangladesh if we go out in our boats,” he said. “Or we may get caught in a storm on our rafts. There is no choice for us.” The fishermen have managed to keep safe so far, though they take their makeshift vessels far enough out to sea that from shore, they look like mere dots on the horizon.
The United Nations estimates that 65,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh in the past three months to escape the government’s “clearance operation.” Rohingya villagers and activists say hundreds of civilians have been killed. The number cannot be verified because authorities have limited aid workers’ and journalists’ access to areas where the deaths occurred. Recent satellite images released by the group Human Rights Watch showed thousands of houses were burned.
“Even in the future, only trouble awaits the Rohingya,” said Mohammed. “I don’t see any improvement in our lives anymore.”