Fifteen Rohingya Muslims were sentenced by a court in central Myanmar’s Magway region on Friday to a maximum of two years in prison each, for attempting to leave the country illegally, an immigration official said.
The 15 adults and one child were first arrested last February 14 for traveling without official proof of identity or travel documents.
Under Myanmar’s Immigration Act, the eight men and seven women were sentenced at the township courthouse and immediately transferred to Thayet Prison, while the six-year-old was sent to the Magway Child Care Centre run by the region’s social welfare department.
“Their sentence came fast because they travelled without any proof of identity or travel documents,” said Minhla township immigration officer Aung Pyi Soe who testified at the hearings. “We didn’t need much evidence to convict them.”
Because of restrictions on their freedom of movement, the Rohingya cannot freely travel inside or outside Myanmar without first obtaining official permission. Those who decide to travel illegally usually do not take identification cards with them, which all Myanmar residents must carry.
More than 200 Rohingya have been charged under the same act during the past three years, he added.
Meanwhile, 70 other Rohingya adults who also tried to illegally flee Myanmar but were arrested on Feb. 20-21 appeared Friday at a courthouse in Yangon to face trial.
The group consists of 67 adults and three children under the age of 10. They are also on trial for violating Myanmar’s nationality statutes for traveling illegally and without documentation.
One of those charged said the group left to escape travel restrictions imposed on them and to find work.
“We cannot travel and don’t have jobs in Rakhine,” said the Rohingya who did not provide a name. “We find it difficult to survive. That’s why we fled from our homes.”
Attorney Thazin Myat Myat Win, who is defending the Rohingya, said that traffickers told the members of the group that they would help them get jobs in Malaysia.
“They were seduced by traffickers because they lack job opportunities,” he said, adding that some had to pay the traffickers 1 million kyats (US$674), while others paid 3 million kyats (US$2,000) each to the traffickers.
“Some kids said that the traffickers told the Rohingya who couldn’t pay them before leaving that they could pay them after they got jobs in Malaysia,” Thazin Myat Myat Win said.
Rohingya activist Thar Aye said the Rohingya did not deserve to be sentenced.
“Although they don’t have proof of identity to travel in the country, the sure thing is they are not foreigners,” he said. “Instead of giving them jail sentences, authorities should send them back to their places of origin.”
Thousands of Rohingya have tried to leave Myanmar in the last several years to escape institutionalized persecution, grinding poverty, and insecurity in Rakhine state.
They have paid human traffickers hundreds of dollars or more each to transport them to other Muslim-friendly nations in Southeast Asia where they hoped to have a better life.
Myanmar authorities have apprehended more than 2,200 Rohingya Muslims as they attempted to illegally leave the country by sea since 2015, according to a list of the detainees obtained from a naval officer by RFA’s Myanmar Service in February. (Source: RFA)