Authorities are earning $7,000 per boatload in exchange for passage out to sea
Kate Hodal in Phnom Penh
The Guardian, Friday 7 November 2014 16.10 GMT
Burma’s state security forces are profiting directly from the trafficking of stateless Rohingya Muslims, earning up to $7,000 per boatload in exchange for passage to sea, a human rights group has found.
Police, navy and army officials have been working directly with transnational crime syndicates by escorting boats to international waters, providing rations or extorting bribes from passengers, many of whom are forced to hand over cash or jewellery as payment, according to Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based group which conducts independent monitoring of rights violations. “Not only are the authorities making life so intolerable for Rohingya that they’re forced to flee, but they’re also profiting from the exodus,” said its executive director, Matthew Smith. “This is a regional crisis that’s worsening while Myanmar [Burmese] authorities are treating it like a perverse payday.”
About 100,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine in west Burma since 2012, when communal violence erupted and Muslim villages were razed in nearly all the townships across the state. Hundreds have since died in mob violence and 140,000 Rohingya are now living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, where food, medicine and adequate housing are scarce.
Although 1.3 million Rohingya live in Burma, the vast majority of whom claim to have generations’ old ancestral rights to the land, a 1982 citizenship law rendered most of them stateless. Authorities deny their ethnicity and classify them as “Bengalis”, effectively proclaiming them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which also fails to recognise the Rohingya.
Fortify Rights conducted interviews from September 2013 to October 2014 with 90 Rohingya men and women in Burma, and Thailand and Malaysia, many of whom had fled the country by boat. Interviewees described dire conditions in IDP camps where people had little or nothing to eat, state authorities beat and arrested inhabitants at random and basic freedoms such as leaving the camp to search for provisions were prohibited – conditions so bad that people had no option but to flee their homeland.
“They’re trying to slowly kill us all,” said one Rohingya man, aged 27. “They restrict us and don’t let us move from village to village because they want us to die and starve. We need to travel to other villages to survive. People [will] die without food and medicine. This is a deliberate plan.”
Once on the boat, interviewees described being regularly beaten by traffickers, witnessing fellow passengers being thrown overboard, and being forced to pay bribes. Police, navy and army officials generally earn $500 to $600 per boatload of asylum seekers en route to Thailand or Malaysia, where they are often held in trafficking camps and rendered vulnerable to being sold into forced labour or sex work. One interviewee described his Malaysia-bound ship handing over $7,000 to the Burmese navy in exchange for safe passage.
A recent government census – which required Rohingya to “verify” their ethnicity status as “Bengali” – has made many fear being further persecuted and segregated, and the number of those fleeing the country has now risen. According to advocacy group the Arakan Project, 900 Rohingya are now attempting to leave Burma every day, pitting them against ruthless state authorities who profit from their desperation to leave.
The revelations come just a few days before Barack Obama’s second visit to Burma, and raises serious questions about the south-east Asia nation’s repeated claims of reform – an issue Obama brought up with the Burmese president, Thein Sein, in a recent telephone call.
“We can’t overestimate the weight of the political and economic leverage Obama brings to Naypyidaw,” Smith said, in a reference to the country’s capital. “He has an opportunity to shift the discourse on human rights and we argue there’s a moral imperative he does so.”