FOR SOME time now, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution and economic deprivation in Burma, also known as Myanmar, by boat. While some go off to work and send money home, others have staked all on a permanent exodus, setting sail in search of better times. They don’t always find it. Hundreds have died at sea and others have been pulled into a growing vortex of human smuggling.
In 2013, Reuters published a series of remarkable articles that added a new dimension to the Rohingya exodus. The news service said its investigation showed that some Thai naval security forces work with smugglers to profit from the fleeing Rohingya. In a July 17 dispatch, Reuters said the lucrative smuggling network transports the Rohingya mainly into Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that the Rohingya view as a haven. The Reuters investigation showed that the Thai navy has played a role in spotting boats carrying the refugees and putting them in the hands of the smugglers, who demand money from families for onward passage. According to the Reuters report, Thai naval forces are paid about $65 per Rohingya “for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye” to the smuggling.
The flight of the Rohingya often ends tragically. The Reuters investigation quoted estimates that in the past year as many as 800 people, mostly Rohingya, have died at sea after their boats broke down or capsized. Those who make it off the seas often are trapped by the smugglers. Men who can’t pay the smugglers are handed over to traffickers who sell them into slavery or as indentured servants, while some women are sold as brides.
Reuters won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for the series . The award cited Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall for their “courageous reports on the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that, in efforts to flee the country, often falls victim to predatory human-trafficking networks.”
In addition to Reuters, a Thai news Web site, Phuketwan, has carried stories for seven years describing the flight of the Rohingya.
So what has Thailand done? Instead of seeking to rectify the situation, the Royal Navy has denied mistreating the refugees and decided to intimidate the messenger. Alleging criminal defamation and a breach of national computer crimes law, the navy filed complaints in December against Phuketwan, which had carried the Reuters stories in addition to its own reporting. In recent days, a similar complaint was lodged against Reuters. In both, those convicted could face up to seven years in prison and a fine, according to Phuketwan.
This is a sad case of Thailand’s navy attempting to extinguish reporting rather than the misery that the reporting exposed. It is wrong to punish the journalists. But this misguided attempt at coercion is doubly wrong because it attempts to hide the shameful treatment of a people, the Rohingya, who are already suffering far too much.