The 'boat people' crisis won't end until Burma stops persecuting the Rohingya
Boat departures have slowed for now, but are expected to resume as the regime steps up its relentless ethnic cleansing.
July 20, 2015
Author: Matthew Smith
Published by: The Guardian
Ebadullah can barely stand. Twenty-six years old and from Burma, he’s weak and weathered, but wants to talk. “If someone tried to move in the boat, they would beat us,” he said. “Those who didn’t move were beaten, too.”
Ebadullah is a survivor of human trafficking. He has been deceived, starved, and tortured by members of a transnational criminal syndicate operating in southeast Asia since at least 2012.
Armed gangs have promised jobs and lump-sum payments to families left behind, and have crammed approximately 150,000 men, women, and children — mostly Rohingya Muslims like Ebadullah — into modern-day slave ships.
Transported like cattle from western Burma and Bangladesh to vile jungle camps in Thailand and Malaysia, most have been systematically tortured, packed like sardines into small quarters, and given an ultimatum: raise $2,000 or die.
As the Guardian has revealed, Rohingya migrants trafficked through deadly jungle camps have been sold to Thai fishing vessels as slaves to produce seafood sold across the world.
“Approximately 200 people died during my stay in the camp,” Ebadullah told me at a sparse community-run shelter in Kuala Lumpur, recounting his three-month ordeal in neighbouring Thailand. “One night, five people died beside me.”
Since 2013, my colleagues and I at Fortify Rights have interviewed hundreds of survivors and more than a dozen traffickers. We documented how traffickers tagged their human cargo with red, white, and yellow bracelets. A mid-level broker of Rohingya descent operating in Malaysia told us without pause that the bracelets were used “as a kind of confirmation” of who owned whom.
Captives who couldn’t raise money to buy their freedom were, in some cases, sold to the highest bidder: to bonded-labour bosses, fishing boat captains, and other purveyors of exploitation. Since 2012 hundreds of millions of dollars have gone directly into the pockets of traffickers and their accomplices, including government officials in Burma and Thailand.
On May 1, Thai officials announced the discovery of a mass grave in an abandoned torture camp, with dozens of corpses believed to be victims of trafficking rings. Weeks later Malaysian authorities announced the discovery of 139 bodies in a remote camp.
But that’s only half the story. Three years ago, dozens of Rohingya villages in western Burma were burned to the ground. Local Buddhists razed Muslim homes and mosques while state security forces opened fire, killing scores of men, women, and children. The following October, another wave of violence struck, more coordinated and lethal than the last, designed to destroy the Rohingya community, or at least drive them out of Burma.
A week after the violence, I went to the scene and interviewed witnesses to the killings, local record keepers, and people who buried the dead in mass graves. I located four separate mass grave sites in Rakhine state, each filled with Rohingya corpses, some of which had been “hogtied” with string. Burmese security agents manually dug some of the graves and surreptitiously buried an unknown number of bodies, according to multiple eyewitness accounts.
Unlike in Thailand and Malaysia, no bodies have since been exhumed, no forensic teams sent in.
Today, Burmese authorities are confining more than 150,000 Muslims, mostly Rohingya, to dozens of internment camps. These are not typical internally displaced person camps. They are beginning to look more like permanent concentration camps, complete with barracks-style housing and barbed-wire fencing. Residents can’t leave.
Three years after their initial displacement, thousands are still denied adequate food, water, and health care. Officials in Burma aren’t discussing their right to return home, let alone compensation for lost properties, livestock, and businesses.
Instead, Burmese authorities are trying to coerce Rohingya, the world’s largest stateless population within any single country’s borders, to identify as Bengali, a crude strategy to erase the Rohingya ethnic identity.
More than a million Rohingya like Ebaddulah are denied basic freedoms of movement, marriage, childbirth, and other aspects of daily life in Burma. These abuses amount to crimes against humanity and continue unabated.
For the last three years, my colleagues and I have documented unspeakable crimes against Rohingya in Burma and beyond, interviewing survivors for hours and sometimes days on end. Often portrayed as helpless victims, many Rohingya have actually worked tirelessly behind the scenes to end abuses perpetrated against them – not least of all by telling their stories. Their resilience is a source of hope.
Human trafficking is a global scourge that should be eradicated through prosecutions and comprehensive protections for survivors – in this case, whether survivors are Rohingya or Bangladeshi. Governments failing to combat human trafficking should be held accountable.
The current “boat crisis” in south-east Asia is rooted in state-sponsored persecution in Burma. The risk of more atrocities against Rohingya and other Muslims is high, particularly ahead of planned national elections later this year. Not nearly enough pressure is being put on Burma to change course.
For now, boat departures have slowed. The region has started to exhale, but it shouldn’t. If Burma fails to end its systematic persecution of the Rohingya the “sailing season” will begin again like clockwork, one way or another. And Rohingya will continue to perish.