Death at sea, death in the jungle – The Edge Review

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Harbour at Thay Chaung, inside a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Sittwe (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Harbour at Thay Chaung, inside a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Sittwe (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Ahead of regional meeting, more refugee and migrant bodies found in Malaysia

BANGKOK – In early May, when Thai police led media to the remains of 33 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants buried in abandoned human trafficking camps near the border with Malaysia, the grisly findings prompted speculation about more camps across the frontier.

Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, a Rohingya activist in Kuala Lumpur, believed at first that there could not be any such death camps inside Malaysia, the preferred destination for Rohingya fleeing poverty and persecution in Myanmar.

“They only can come to Malaysia if their relatives pay money to the agent, Ghani told The Edge Review, discussing how traffickers held refugees and migrants captive in the camps in the far south of Thailand, before letting them carry on across the border. The syndicates extorted anything from US$2000-3000 from family members to allow the terrified captives safe passage to Malaysia, where 46,000 Rohingya are registered as refugees and tens of thousands more subsist outside the official system. Those who could not pay were executed, it seems.

But just as Thailand’s police belatedly cracked down on a long-established and deadly trafficking network, Malaysia’s cops were rounding up dozens of suspected traffickers, some of who led the police to 28 camps inside Malaysia.

There, as in Thailand, some gruesome discoveries awaited the police, with so far almost 150 cadavers unearthed at camps hidden in the jungle, a 3 hour hike through rough jungle terrain in Perlis state in northern Malaysia.

The crackdown has not resolved sotheast Asia’s refugee crisis, however. The earlier Thai disruption of the trafficking networks forced more than 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis to land near Langkawi in Malaysia and along the northern Sumatran coast in Indonesia. At first Putrajaya and Jakarta seemed reluctant to allow more refugees and migrants to land, but last week changed tack, even carrying out search and rescue operations for stranded boats,. Both countries said they would shelter refugees for up to a year provided other countries pledged to take them afterwards.

At least half the boat people are Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, but the country’s government dismisses claims that it is at fault.

Indeed, Ye Htut, Myanmar’s Information Minister and government spokesman, said that most of the people taking to the sea for Thailand and Malaysia did not come from Myanmar.

“They (boat people) say they are coming from Myanmar but we can’t decide this until we can conduct verification process,” Ye Htut told The Edge Review.

Even the word ‘Rohingya’ is taboo in Myanmar government circles, with Naypyidaw agreeing to attend a regional crisis meeting in Bangkok on May 29 only if other participant countries agreed to not use the term Rohingya, a people described by Myanmar as immigrants from Bangladesh.

Some international organizations are toeing the Naypyidaw line. On May 22, the United Nations mission in Myanmar sent a delegation to Rakhine State in western Myanmar, where most of the 1-1.3 million Rohingya live, to assess the local impact of the boat crisis. In keeping with the Myanmar government’s demands, the U.N. press release describing the visit did not use the term “Rohingya.”

According to the statement, the U.N. “recognizes and appreciates recent improvements in the conditions in Rakhine,” but all the same pushed the government “to address the daily issues of discrimination, restricted freedom of movement, and deprivation of fundamental rights faced by the IDPs and other Muslim populations.”

Persistent discrimination against the Rohingya means that each year thousands of people take their chances crossing the Bay of Bengal in trafficker-crewed boats, in the hope of eventually eking out a hand to mouth living in Malaysia. With Myanmar’s parliament this week stripping Rohingya of voting rights in the national elections scheduled for later this year, flight, to many, beats putting up with intensifying persecution at home. Around 100,000-120,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since anti-Muslim violence in 2012.

For now, the U.N estimates that more than 3,000 refugees and migrants remain stranded at sea, their location unknown. Boats that returned to waters near the Myanmar-Bangladesh frontier last week have been emptied of their human cargo, though more could arrive off Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine State, anytime over the coming days.

“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.

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