x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims – the new boat people

They risk everything on a voyage to freedom, but some Rohingya are falling into the hands of people smugglers, extortionists or worse.

Rohingya boat people wait for their breakfast at a temporary shelter in the Idi Rayeuk district of Indonesia's Aceh province.
Rohingya boat people wait for their breakfast at a temporary shelter in the Idi Rayeuk district of Indonesia's Aceh province.

PADANG BESAR, Thailand // The beatings were accompanied by threats. If his family didn't produce the money, his captors said as they lashed him, Myanmar refugee Abdul Sabur would be sold into slavery on a fishing boat.

It had been more than two months since Sabur and his wife set sail from Myanmar with 118 other Rohingya Muslims to escape violence and persecution. Twelve died on the disastrous voyage. The survivors were imprisoned in India and then handed over to people smugglers in southern Thailand.

As the smugglers beat Sabur in their jungle hideout, they kept a phone line open so that his relatives could hear his screams and speed up the payment of US$1,800 (Dh6,610) to secure his release.

"Every time there was a delay or problem with the payment they would hurt us again," said Sabur, a tall fisherman from Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

He was part of the swelling flood of Rohingya who have escaped Myanmar by sea this year in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the Vietnam War ended.

Their fast-growing exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Ethnic and religious tensions simmered during 49 years of military rule. But under the reformist government that took power in March 2011, Myanmar has endured its worst communal bloodshed in generations.

A Reuters investigation reveals how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya. The lucrative smuggling network transports the Rohingya mainly into neighbouring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country they view as a haven from persecution.

Once in the smugglers' hands, Rohingya men are often beaten until they come up with the money for their passage. Those who can't pay are handed over to traffickers, who sometimes sell the men as indentured servants on farms or into slavery on Thai fishing boats. There, they become part of the country's $8 billion seafood-export business.

Some Rohingya women are sold as brides, Reuters reported. Other Rohingya languish in overcrowded Thai and Malaysian immigration detention centres.

The news agency reconstructed one deadly journey by 120 Rohingya, tracing their dealings with smugglers through interviews with the passengers and their families. They included Sabur and his 46-year-old mother-in-law, Sabmeraz; Rahim, a 22-year-old rice farmer, and his friend Abdul Hamid, 27; and Abdul Rahim, 27, a shopkeeper.

While the death toll on their boat was unusually high, the accounts of mistreatment by authorities and smugglers were similar to those of survivors from other boats interviewed by Reuters.

The Rohingya exodus, and the state measures that fuel it, undermine Myanmar's carefully crafted image of ethnic reconciliation and stability that helped persuade the United States and Europe to suspend most sanctions.

At least 800 people, mostly Rohingya, have died at sea after their boats broke down or capsized in the past year, says the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has studied Rohingya migration since 2006.

The escalating death toll prompted the United Nations this year to call that part of the Indian Ocean one of world's "deadliest stretches of water".

For more than a decade, Rohingya men have set sail in search of work in neighbouring countries. A one-way voyage typically costs about 200,000 kyat, or US$205, a small fortune by local standards. The extended Rohingya families who raise the sum regard it as an investment. Many survive with the help of money sent from relatives overseas.

The number boarding boats from Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh reached 34,626 people from June 2012 to May of this year - more than four times the previous year, says the Arakan Project. Almost all are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

A sophisticated smuggling industry is developing around them, drawing in other refugees across South Asia. Ramshackle fishing boats are being replaced by cargo ships crewed by smugglers and teeming with passengers. In June alone, six such ships disgorged hundreds of Rohingya and other refugees on remote Thai islands controlled by smugglers, the Arakan Project said.

Sabur and the others who sailed on the doomed 35-foot fishing boat came from Rakhine, a rugged coastal state where Rohingya claim a centuries-old lineage.

The government calls them illegal "Bengali" migrants from Bangladesh who arrived during British rule in the 19th century. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya of Rakhine are denied citizenship and refused passports.

Machete-wielding Rakhine Buddhists destroyed Sabur's village last October, forcing him to abandon his home south of Sittwe, capital of Rakhine. Last year's communal unrest in Rakhine made 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Myanmar's government says 192 people died. Rohingya activists put the toll as high as 748.

Before the violence, the Rohingya were the poorest people in the second-poorest state of South-east Asia's poorest country. Today, despite Myanmar's historic reforms, they are worse off.

Tens of thousands live in squalid, disease-ridden displacement camps on the outskirts of Sittwe. Armed checkpoints prevent them from returning to the paddy fields and markets on which their livelihoods depend. In some areas, Rohingya families have been banned from having more than two children.