9 March 2014 (Coconuts Media) — Over time Maha Min Gyi has watched his family members and friends and acquaintances disappear. More than he says he can count.
Some have vanished into prisons, some fell victim to human traffickers, while others simply drowned at sea.
“The situation is so bad. Some people have died in the sea and others in the brokers’ camps,” said the said the 35-year-old Muslim from the Rakhine state of Myanmar who lives in Bangkok.
“The culprits are human traffickers,” he added angrily.
Scores of Maha Min’s friends and community members from his hometown of Sittwe have tried to flee the ongoing conflict during the past two years only to wind up locked up in Thai immigration centers or in the grips of human traffickers in the south of the country.
In 2012, two waves of riots in June and October broke between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar led to widespread violence, looting, burning of homes and physical clashes involving Buddhists, Muslims and local police. Hundreds have died and 143,000 people have fled their homes in fear since October 2012. In the aftermath, Rohingya who fled the violence are banned from returning to home. Instead they’re kept in military-guarded camps, prompting thousands to escape the country by boat each sailing season.
Since the beginning, the violence has been tidily written off as “inter-communal violence,” which blames the violence on tension between the Rohingya and their Rakhine Buddhist neighbours.
But in fact the root causes of the conflict are embedded in official Myanmar government policies which have oppressed and disenfrenchized Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for decades, according to a Feb. 25 report from Fortify Rights International, a US-based non-profit focusing on the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
Despite living in Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya are not included in Myanmar’s list of 135 national races, determined by the constitution in 1974, and cannot access citizenship to Myanmar under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law.
“The entire population has struggled for many years under military rule, and tensions have persisted over generations,’ said Matt Smith, the director of Fortify Rights and co-author of the report. “To stabilize Rakhine State, first oppressive policies must be abolished.”
Meanwhile Thai immigration officials continue to crack down on Rohingya refugees disembarking from boats in southern Thailand. But human rights activists say that punitive legal measures taken against Rohingya seeking a safe place to go will not staunch the flow of people; it will just increase the exploitation and suffering of a group that has already been persecuted for decades.
“There is more of a push factor than a pull factor. As long as the situation is bad for Rohingya [in Myanmar] migration flows [to Thailand] are not going to end,” said Amal de Chickera, the head of Statelessness and Nationality Projects at Equal Rights Trust (ERT), a human rights and legal advocacy NGO headquartered in the UK, and co-author of another Rohingya reportreleased last month.
As anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rage in Myanmar, Rohingya families arriving in Thailand are split up by authorities, with men kept in detention cells and women and children sent to shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS), exacerbating risks of trafficking. Only political pressure on this year’s chairman of the eight-member political and economic bloc, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to cease abusing Rohingya, will stem the exodus, say human rights advocates.
But addressing the issue is difficult, as it struggles to be heard in Thailand.
Two Phuket reporters who have written about the abuse and trafficking of Rohingya were recently charged by the Royal Thai Navy of violating the Computer Crimes Act for publishing information taken from a Reuters report.
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of Phuketwan will find out tomorrow whether they’ll be prosecuted, they said in an FCCT discussion titled “Silencing the Media over Rohingya Abuses.“
Thailand’s “split-policy personality” endangers Rohingya
The latest wave of local police violence against the Rohingya in southern Maungdaw township in mid-January resulted in dozens of deaths of local villagers.
“This has caused a new spasm of fear in Rohingya communities and contributes to the increased desire of persons to flee on boats if they can find a way and can afford it,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
Yet while Thailand has permitted Burmese refugees from other ethnic minority groups to take refuge in nine camps along Thailand’s 1,800 km Thai-Myanmar border since the 1980s, Rohingyas are either detained, pushed back to sea or informally sold to human smuggling rings.
“We have a dual track system for Rohingya and Burmese in Thailand. There needs to be policy coherence and cohesion,” advised Vitit Muntabhorn, a national human rights expert and law professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
The Thai government neither allows Rohingya to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nor offers temporary asylum.
“Very few want stay in Thailand,” said Abdul Kalam, the president of the Rohingya National Association in Thailand. “We face problems for not having documents, so many try to go on to Malaysia.”
While it is uncertain how many have attempted to move on to Malaysia from Thailand, roughly 6,000 have arrived on Thai soil since October 2012, yet only 700 are still in detention, according to Kalam.
Attempts to obtain comment from the Thai Immigration Bureau were unsuccessful, as someone twice hung up calls placed to a spokesperson.
Dmitrina Petrova, executive director of Equal Rights Trust, said traffickers work both sides of the Malay-Thai border.
“Human trafficking is a money-making machine,” Petrova said. Traffickers there might transport Rohingya into Malaysia where they can find work. Coming the other way, they may kidnap undocumented Rohingya from Malaysia and bring them to the Thai border to extort money from them.
Of the 50,000 undocumented Rohingya in Malaysia, many “are routinely arrested, sent through the Thai border, and traffickers [demand bribes] from their poor families who work as irregular migrants in Malaysia,” according to Petrova.
Families split up
Another major issue affecting Rohingya is that in the chaos of the conflict and trying to find safer ground, families are split up and divided by borders, without communication with their loved ones.
“Some Rohingya in Malaysia try to bring their families from Rakhine state through Thailand [as a transit place] but most never reach there,” said Kalam, 53, who himself left behind a family in Rakhine state.
“I do not know how are my daughter and first wife back in Myanmar,” he said. “I have not been able to contact them for a long time now,” he said, staring at his hands.
Maha Min has also not seen his father in more than four years.
His father, a prominent Muslim leader in Rakhine state, set up 14 schools for displaced Muslim children in Sittwe between September 2012 and June 2013, then was imprisoned for allegedly fomenting inter-communal violence in July last year.
“He is now in prison, facing six charges against him,” Maha Min said unhappily.
Human rights activists in Thailand also say Thai policies of separating families in detention puts women and children at higher risk of trafficking and abuse when they are held in shelters hundreds of kilometres away from their husbands and fathers.
“So many Rohingya women have been raped,” said Kalam, showing Coconuts two photos of young women he said were abused by brokers.
“If we are going to stay on this dual track, at least let families stay together,” Muntabhorn urged.
Renewed call for Rohingya acceptance in Myanmar
While protecting Rohingya from human rights violations in Thailand and Malaysia is critical, addressing the root causes requires dismantling racism and discrimination in Myanmar, according to analysts.
Some ethnic minorities— who themselves have suffered extensively from human rights abuses perpetrated by the military (controlled by the Burman majority ethnic group)— have expressed discriminatory feelings against the Rohingya.
“There is no doubt that inside the country, the level of societal prejudice is the highest possible,” Petrova said, explaining that a consequence of oppression is its internalization.
Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the former champion of human rights in Myanmar and current chairwoman of the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD) has remained silent on the issue of Rohingya.
“It is not a simple binary between the oppressor and the oppressed. [In a system where] it is acceptable that some people are below others, people derive dignity from not being the on the lowest level of society,” Petrova noted.
While the human rights of ethnic minorities is a prime topic of Myanmar’s peace process since the 2010 elections, abuses against the Rohingya are seen as a separate issue.
“The [government] is willing to accept [other ethnic minorities, such as] the Kachin, Karen, and Chin. But for them, the Rohingya, particularly Muslim people, it is a totally different situation,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar.
While ASEAN is the main forum for regional cooperation, any pressure from this route has thus far been unsuccessful, say advocates.
“States with significant Rohingya populations, such as Thailand, have to continue to use diplomatic channels to put pressure on Myanmar to get its act together,” Amal de Chickera said.
As a regional problem the issue will take more than Thailand’s efforts to solve, Petrova concluded.