YANGON — At least 21 people including nine children died after a boat capsized off the coast of Myanmar’s restive Rakhine State on its way to a local market Tuesday, a United Nations spokesman said.
The vessel was transporting around 60 passengers from a camp for internally displaced people, the UN said, in a region where sectarian violence has pushed tens of thousands of Rohingya, Myanmar’s largely stateless Muslim minority, from their homes.
“The majority of passengers on the boat were internally displaced people from the Sin Tet Maw camp in Pauktaw Township,” Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Myanmar, told AFP.
They were “on an authorised day trip to Sittwe to make purchases at the market”, he said, adding that the number of fatalities was expected to rise as many of the passengers remained unaccounted for.
Paukaw is surrounded by rivers that feed into the sea and people from its camps can only reach the markets in coastal Sittwe, the state capital several dozen kilometres away, by boat.
An official from the Rakhine’s security and border affairs ministry also confirmed the accident but put the death toll at 14.
“The boat sank because of a heavy wave in the sea,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
He said the passengers were “Bengalis” — a term many officials use to refer to Rohingya.
The Rohingya have been forced to live in apartheid-like conditions ever since unrest between Buddhists and Muslims tore through Rakhine State in 2012 and left hundreds dead.
A rising tide of Buddhist nationalism across the country has in recent years deepened hostility towards the group — most of whom are rendered stateless by a web of citizenship laws despite having lived in the country for generations.
Tens of thousands have fled persecution and poverty in dangerous boat journeys headed for neighbouring countries.
In 2015 a Thai crackdown on people smuggling led gang bosses to abandon many Rohingya on land and at sea, sparking a regional crisis.
Last week the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the government to “radically change” the country’s “abusive policies and practices in Rakhine State”.