JAKARTA — Concern is growing in Asia about the spread of the Zika virus, with a recent outbreak in Singapore followed by cases in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, which usually causes only mild fever, rashes and red eyes in infected adults but can lead to a birth defect called microcephaly if a pregnant woman is infected. The spread of Zika in Latin America has led to about 1,800 cases of microcephaly and resulted in several prominent athletes refusing to participate in the recent Olympic Games held in Brazil. In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika, which can be spread sexually but is mostly mosquito-borne, a global public health emergency. In Asia, the threat of the virus spreading around the region is causing concern for hundreds of millions of people already on guard against dengue, malaria and other conditions spread by the same mosquitoes that carry Zika. With almost 300 Zika cases reported in recent weeks in Singapore, a trade hub and city-state that is home to significant migrant worker populations from across Asia, the fear is that Zika will spread rapidly throughout the densely populated region.
SYDNEY — The U.S. government’s latest annual Trafficking in Persons report, published on June 30, generated the usual mix of dismay and relief among countries named. In Asia, countries including Myanmar responded angrily to their downgrading in the influential rankings, which can affect their standing as U.S. trade partners among other aspects of their ties with Washington. The Philippines — despite, as the report noted, having a “significant problem” of sex trafficking — was upgraded to the top tier of countries for its efforts to counteract trafficking. The list, which this year rated 190 countries — two more than last year — includes countries which the state department says “fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards,” a level attained by only two other Asian countries, South Korea and Taiwan. The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” an attempt to enhance diplomatic and commercial ties with the world’s most economically dynamic region and to counter the growing sway of China, saw a thawing of ties with Myanmar. As well as relaxing most of its economic sanctions on the country, the U.S. quickly lifted Myanmar out of the bottom tier of its trafficking rankings under the quasi civilian government of former President Thein Sein. But the 2016 report saw Myanmar demoted to Tier 3, the bottom rank, alongside countries such as North Korea and Sudan.
KUALA LUMPUR — Gulajan Binti Nur Hamad was only 9 years old when she saw her house set ablaze by rampaging Buddhist mobs. “There was fire and fighting,” she said, running her right hand across her throat in a hint that she had seen worse than the flames that left her family’s home in ashes. Gulajan was one of more than 140,000 Muslim Rohingya driven from their homes in 2012 during violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, in her case left homeless when ethnic Rakhine mobs in October that year attacked the Rohingya Muslims living in the area of Kyaukphyu, an oil and gas port where a major pipeline comes ashore before traversing Myanmar to China’s Yunnan Province.
BANGKOK – In Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, the refugees were in bad shape when they landed in early and mid-May after a long ordeal at sea. “They only had the clothes on their backs. Many had wounds from the fighting that had broken out at sea over food,” Nasruddin, a coordinator for the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Acehnese nongovernmental organization that has been working with the survivors, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
BANGKOK – For Rohingya, it surely seemed as if the Myanmar government was not taking the meeting seriously, much less committing to addressing the decades of discrimination and bias that prompt thousands of Rohingya to risk kidnapping and destitution overseas. “The [Myanmar] government just sent a low-level delegation. There was not even a Rohingya representative speaking at the meeting,” said Aung Win ,a Rohingya community leader speaking by telephone from a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state.
BANGKOK – For now the numbers of people taking to the seas is likely to ease off, as the long rainy season hits Myanmar and Bangladesh, bringing with it the threat of cyclones and stormy seas. The change in weather should in theory give the concerned countries a five to six month window to deal with the causes of the crisis. But Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader living in a Muslim ghetto near Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state, believes that many Rohingya will once again try to reach Thailand and Malaysia when the rains stop around October. “For sure, unless the government does something to make our lives easier, after the rainy season people will make for overseas,” Aung Win told the NAR.
BANGKOK — Deferring to a Myanmar government demand, representatives at a meeting here aimed at resolving southeast Asia’s ongoing maritime migration crisis are sidestepping using the term “Rohingya.” “We are totally against the use of the nomenclature Rohingya, which never [existed] as a race in [this] country,” Htin Lin, Myanmar’s representative at the Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean, told the Nikkei Asian Review. Friday’s discussions involve representatives of 17 countries and come after Thailand launched a crackdown on long-established human trafficking syndicates preying on migrants aiming to get to Malaysia from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
BANGKOK – “According to the information given to me by those who come back from the boats, there are no more now offshore,” said Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya businessman who paid out of his own pocket for the safe return to Sittwe of 75 trafficked Rohingya. “I paid 200,000 Myanmar kyat (about US$200) for each human person,” Kyaw Hla told The Edge Review. With the annual rainy season about to hit the Bay of Bengal and surrounding countries, the exodus of Rohingya and Bangladeshis will cease, for now, said Kyaw Hla. But unless conditions improve over the coming months, more Rohingya will likely take to the sea again come October, when the clouds break and the wind and rains stop and the boats point south toward Thailand and Malaysia once more.
YANGON – For the Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees rescued near Aceh, the fishermen’s heroics ended what for some was a four month ordeal at sea. “When they were found by the fishermen they were all incredibly weak and many were barely conscious, especially the women and children. Those who were conscious were crying for help. Some jumped into the sea when they saw the fishermen approach asking to be rescued,” said Nasruddin, Humanitarian Coordinator for The Geutanyoe Foundation, which has been working with the survivors. “We have a wisdom that called in local language as “Pemulia Jamee Adat Geutanyoe” or ‘serving the guest is our ritual,’ said Teuku Youvan, a member of the Aceh Disaster Management Agency’s advisory board.
BANGKOK – In recent years, attacks on the Muslim Rohingya by the Buddhist Rakhine have forced almost 150,000 Rohingya into camps after their villages were destroyed. Since then, an estimated 120,000 have run a gauntlet of stormy seas as well as abuse and extortion by traffickers in order to escape to Malaysia. “People do not have any freedom here,” said Myo Win, a Rohingya speaking to the NAR by telephone from Sittwe, the Rakhine regional state capital. “That is why they try to go to Malaysia,” he added.