The depths of desperation – The Edge Review

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Rohingya refugees carting rice rations inside camp near Sittwe, April 2014 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Rohingya refugees carting rice rations inside camp near Sittwe, April 2014 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

A lid is lifted on the brutality of traffickers exploiting Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar 

YANGON – Bodies buried in the jungle, camps hurriedly abandoned, officials arrested, police suspended from duty, thousands of desperate refugees adrift at sea and pushed back into international waters by foreign navies.

Tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya fleeing discrimination and enslavement in Myanmar are running a gauntlet of extortion, rape, starvation and sometimes execution in the remote jungles of Thailand’s south, a usual way station en route to Malaysia.

Last week more than 30 bodies were dug up at abandoned camps around Padang Besar near the Thailand-Malaysia frontier. Thailand’s military junta, under pressure internationally over accusations of human trafficking as well as slavery in its fishing industry, scoured the country’s southern reaches for victims of traffickers.

The traffickers, themselves Rohingya in some cases, were likely working with support from members of the security forces, believes deputy prime minister and defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

By Sunday the impact of Thailand’s hunt was being felt, as 600 refugees, mostly Rohingya, washed up near Aceh on the northwestern tip of Indonesia. On Monday, 1,000 more were found dumped in shallow seas near Langkawi in Malaysia, and another 400 drifting in a boat off the west coast of Indonesia.

However by Thuesday both countries were saying that they would not accept any more refugees arriving by sea, with Indonesia sending a boatload of around 300 back towards Malaysia.

“I am still very worried that there are many more boats we don’t know about,” said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a NGO that monitors Rohingya displacement.

According to the UNHCR, in the first quarter of 2015, around 25,000 people, double that of the same period over the past two years, crossed the Bay of Bengal in the traffickers’ cramped, rickety and sun-baked boats.

While most refugees are fleeing voluntarily, they risk being trapped by gangs seeking fees of up to US$2,000 to smuggle them into Malaysia – money often extorted during anguished phone calls from captives, sometimes during torture, to family members.

“Based on interviews with those who have reached Thailand and Malaysia, 300 people are estimated to have died at sea while attempting maritime journeys from the Bay of Bengal in the first quarter of 2015 – and as many as 620 since October 2014 – primarily as a result of starvation, dehydration, and beatings by boat crews,” the UNHCR reported last week.

Such a perilous, brutal exodus is driven by decades of discrimination against the Rohingya, a group not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 listed ethnicities and thereby denied most rights. Numbering up to an estimated 1.3 million, most live in poverty in Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar, one of Myanmar’s poorest regions which is the homeland of around 2 million Buddhist ethnic Rakhine.

And while anti-Rohingya persecution goes back decades – to military operations that forced hundreds of thousands to flee across the border to Bangladesh in the late 1970s – life for the Rohingya has worsened since Myanmar’s civilian government took office in 2011 and introduced a welter of liberalizing reforms.

At the same time as once-respected defenders of democracy and human rights – such as the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and former political prisoners known as the 88 Generation – were at last granted many of the freedoms so long denied them by the junta, so too were the likes of Wirathu, leader of a group of anti-Muslim Buddhist monks, as well as various Rakhine political parties.

All of these groups describe the Rohingya as Bengali, implying that they are foreigners from Bangladesh. The NLD and the 88 Generation have, in less crude and strident terms, fallen in with the anti-Rohingya chestbeating.

By mid-2012 communal violence had erupted between Rohingya and Rakhine, tit-for-tat burnings and killings that later took on all the appearance of an anti-Muslim pogrom.

Chris Lewa estimates that more than 100,000 have fled Myanmar since 2012, willing to risk captivity and ransoming to escape the increasingly restive Rakhine State.

Rakhine political parties claim the national government is too soft on the Rohingya and have amalgamated ahead of national elections due in November, while a Rakhine rebel militia known as the Arakan Army has clashed with the national army in recent weeks.

“Since the violence, many Rohingya cannot make a living even compared to before 2012,” said Myo Thant, speaking by phone from Sittwe, the Rakhine regional capital and scene of mob violence in 2012. “No jobs, no freedom of movement, that’s why people take the risk to go to Malaysia,” he said.

A year ago Myanmar held its first nationwide census in three decades, and did not allow Rohingya to register. The government has also revoked Rohingya voting rights and identity cards, while a set of “race and religion” bills in parliament will, if passed, ensure additional discrimination against Muslims.

Three years on from the violence, almost 150,000 Rohingya languish in refugee camps scattered along the Rakhine coast – ample fodder for the trafficking trade, which in recent months has seen increased numbers fleeing a polarised and unstable Bangladesh.

There are rumours of more camps on the Malaysia side of the border, though these too may have been disbanded after Malaysian police rounded up around 20 traffickers, mostly Rohingya themselves, according to Chris Lewa.

Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha stresses that Thailand is a transit country only for the migrants, and wants a regional meeting to help curb the trafficking that has long blighted Thailand’s reputation, with thousands of Burmese migrant workers enslaved on Thai fishing boats in recent years.

The bluff general no doubt has an eye on the upcoming publication of the U.S government’s annual global trafficking survey, which last year saw Thailand demoted and listed among the world’s worst trafficking countries.

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