By Radio Free Asia

Bangladesh’s border guard this month deported at least 340 Muslim Myanmar nationals – more commonly known as Rohingyas – without any resistance from Myanmar border police, the head of the Bangladeshi force said Thursday.

“Over the last 20 days, we caught illegal Myanmar nationals, photographed them and sent 340 of them back to their homeland,” Lt. Col. Imran Ullah Sarker, chief executive of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), told RFA.

The latest batch of 20 Rohingyas was turned back Wednesday with no obstruction from the BGB’s counterpart on the Myanmar side of the border, after these members of the neighboring county’s Muslim minority were caught trying to cross into Bangladesh without proper papers, Sarker said.

The process of catching and sending Rohingyas back to Myanmar has, in fact, been occurring over the past several months, leading to a slight reduction in the number entering Bangladesh, he added.

“This is very unusual that the Myanmar border police have allowed the Rohingyas in,” former Bangladeshi ambassador Ashfaqur Rahman told RFA.

“The Myanmar border guard allows the Rohingya Muslims to go out of the Buddhist- majority Myanmar, but they had been very tough on repatriation as they [label] the Muslim minority as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ or ‘illegal Chittagonians,’” he said.

Rahman, a former ambassador to Germany, China and Singapore, served in the 1970s as chief administrative officer in Cox’s Bazar, a district in southeastern Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are now concentrated.

The influx of Rohingyas from neighboring Rakhine started in the ’70s but swelled in 1992 and 2012, when thousands of Rohingyas spilled across the border to escape from religious violence.

“Though the number of returnees is very small compared with the huge number of illegal Rohingyas living in Bangladesh, this repatriation is significant. But we have to wait to see whether this happened due to the change of government in Myanmar or for other factors,” Rahman added.

Rohingyas, who are mostly concentrated in Rakhine, a state in western Myanmar that borders Bangladesh, for many years fled abroad by land and sea to escape from persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.

Last year, more than 3,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi migrants came ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand after the Thai government imposed a maritime blockade on human-trafficking boats sailing in from the Bay of Bengal. Many were fleeing from Myanmar, where Rohingyas are not recognized as citizens.

On Wednesday, the death toll from a boat that capsized off Myanmar’s coast while carrying Rohingyas rose to more than 20. The accident occurred on Tuesday as the overloaded vessel approached Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, in rough waters.

A softening in Myanmar?

Delwar Hossain, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, told RFA that the recent change of government in Myanmar may have softened the attitude of that nation’s border police.

“The exit of a military-backed government brings in some hopes among the people. So, the ascendency Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government may have brought some hope among the Rohingyas, though we do not see any significant change in the government policy on them,” Hossain said.

According to a report in the Myanmar Times that cited information from the U.N.’s refugee agency, as many as 500,000 Rohingyas are living in Bangladesh, but their repatriation has been stalled since 2005.

Of the total, 30,000 Rohingyas have refugee status and live in two camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Meanwhile, a survey done by a parliamentary committee in 2013 estimated that more than 300,000 Rohingyas were living illegally in Cox’s Bazar, where they live in shantytowns.

‘The Nasaka threatened to kill me’

Mohammad Hashem, a Rohingya Muslim in his seventies who fled to Cox’s Bazar to escape Buddhist attacks on Muslims in 1992, told RFA that he would like to return home to Sittwe to see his wife, daughter and grandsons.

“I tried at least 100 times over the years to see them [in Sittwe]. But the Nasaka threatened to kill me. Instead they sought money from me to push my wife and daughter into Bangladesh,” said Hashem, who works as a vendor in Cox’s Bazar.

Nasaka, Myanmar’s notorious border patrol force, was replaced in 2013 by the new border police.

“I would go back if the Moghs (Buddhists) do not torture us,” he said.