Citizens International

For Myanmar Muslim Minority, No Escape From Brutality



HAT YAI, Thailand — He had already endured a treacherous journey down the Bay of Bengal, squeezed in the belly of a fishing trawler, then squashed in a pickup truck as it hurtled down Thailand’s southern coast. Malaysia, his final destination, was tantalizingly close.

But under the towering trees of a rubber plantation, the smuggler who had brought Abdul Musid, a 30-year-old from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, this far made a new demand: Pay more or be left behind. When Mr. Musid pleaded that he had no more money, the smuggler kicked him in the groin and left him for dead.

A villager found Mr. Musid and brought him to the hospital here for treatment, doctors said, after the other captives in the smugglers’ camp, also Rohingya men from Myanmar, fled with their jailers before a raid by the Thai authorities.

Violence by the Rakhine ethnic group, driven by an extreme Buddhist ideology, has led tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee in the last 18 months through smuggling rings that pledge to take them to Malaysia, a Muslim country that quietly accepts the desperate newcomers.

Thailand is the way station where the Rohingya, denied citizenship in Myanmar by national law, arrive on fishing boats converted to human cargo vessels. If they have money to pay unscrupulous brokers, they leave quickly for neighboring Malaysia.

But those who cannot afford to pay languish in smugglers’ camps hidden in the jungle across southern Thailand, or in the abysmal detention cells of the Thai immigration authorities.

Despite Thailand’s long history of absorbing refugees from conflicts in nearby countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as members of other ethnic groups from Myanmar, the country has declined to grant the Rohingya temporary shelter or basic services. The government refuses to assess their requests for asylum, human rights groups say, instead subjecting them to detention so harsh that some die in custody. Arguments by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that Thailand should treat the Rohingya like other refugees have failed to convince the Thai government, the agency said.

Instead, the government has authorized what it calls “soft” deportation of the Rohingya: moving them out of detention cells, placing them in wooden boats at the southern port of Ranong, and sending them out into the Andaman Sea. There, they are picked up again by smugglers who, human rights groups charge, are often in league with Thai officials. Those who cannot pay ransom for passage to Malaysia are finally forced into indentured servitude on Thai plantations and fishing vessels, rights groups say.

The Thai government would like Myanmar to accept the Rohingya as citizens, said Maj. Gen. Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, the commander of immigration in Songkhla, in southern Thailand, whose detention cells are filled with the refugees. Barring that, he said, “they come here illegally, without permission, and we have to deport them.”

A Merciless Journey

Many Rohingya, having lost their livelihoods in the violent attacks on their communities, feel they have little choice but to flee Myanmar, formerly Burma. They are easy prey for the well-oiled smuggling networks run by Thais, Malaysians and the Rohingya themselves, some of whom start the smuggling chain in the villages and displaced camps of Rakhine, the northern state where most of the 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar live.




A smugglers’ camp raided by Thai officials. The smugglers target Rohingya Muslims, who are persecuted and denied citizenship in Myanmar.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times


More than 2,000 Rohingya are believed to be missing at sea, presumed drowned, since June 2012, when the violence against them first erupted in Rakhine, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a human rights group specializing in the Rohingya. In all, about 80,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar by sea since then, Ms. Lewa said.

The people who perish in the camps are usually those unable to pay the brokers who demand $2,000 for their release to Malaysia, Thai immigration officials said.

Desperation drives the Rohingya to flee Myanmar, but the perilous journey leaves many in equally dire straits. Increasing numbers have arrived in Malaysia with paralysis caused by chronic malnutrition and physical abuse during long confinement in the smugglers’ camps in Thailand, according to the United Nations refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

In an interview at the hospital where he was recovering from his wounds, Mr. Musid said he left Myanmar after Rakhine Buddhists seized his farmland and he struggled to make ends meet as a fisherman. Two Rohingya brokers persuaded him that life was better in Malaysia and said that for $600, they would get him there.

He had no hope of raising such a large sum, but with a down payment of $35, he agreed to a deal that would allow him to pay the rest of the money once he got work in Malaysia.

Soon after, he boarded a small wooden craft that took him and many others to a trawler waiting in international waters off the coast of Bangladesh.

After five days at sea with little water or food, the boat landed somewhere on the southern coast of Thailand. The group spent two days or so in a makeshift jungle camp, and then Mr. Musid was crammed with about 20 men into the back of a pickup truck.



Rohingya men who died of sepsis after being found abandoned in smugglers’ camps, presumably because they could not pay for the last leg of the journey to Malaysia, were buried in the village of Chalung, Thailand.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times


When the road trip ended near the Malaysian border about 10 hours later, he said, five of the men, so weakened by the hardships of the previous weeks, were dead.

He was then detained in a warehouse with other Rohingya as brokers badgered him for money for the final leg of the trip to Malaysia, despite the deal he had struck to pay once he arrived. He told them he had no money and no relatives who could send any.

As the camp was hastily disbanding, Mr. Musid said, his handler again demanded money and handed him a cellphone to call someone in Malaysia.

When Mr. Musid said he did not have anyone to call, the smuggler attacked him. The wound to his groin was so deep it became severely infected after he was left on the jungle floor, said Dr. Bancha Thiptirapong, who treated him at the hospital.

Others did not survive the ordeal. In the village of Chalung near here, five men were recently buried in unmarked graves. Their deaths were caused by sepsis, hospital certificates said, diagnosed after they were found abandoned, the most able-bodied Rohingya having left a smugglers’ camp.

No Good Choices

Embarrassed by deaths in the camps and reports of officials’ selling Rohingya from immigration centers into smuggling rings, the Thai immigration authorities recently invited reporters to inspect camps that officers had raided, visits designed to show that Thailand was acting against the smugglers.



Bamboo holding pens, too low to stand up in, were used by smugglers as a temporary trafficking camp for Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times


On sloping ground amid a plantation near Songkhla, on the border with Malaysia, 531 Rohingya had been kept like animals in open-air pens made from wooden poles lashed together with bicycle chains.


Islamic head caps, scraps of tarpaulin, a broken flashlight and scattered rice grains near the ashes of a fire attested to the grim makings of the camp. A raised wooden platform served as a jerry-built watchtower from which overseers had monitored the inmates, each worth thousands of dollars either in ransom for their freedom or as indentured laborers.

It was from a camp like this in southern Thailand that Fortify Rights, a human rights organization that researches ethnic groups in Myanmar, recorded a conversation between a Rohingya broker, his two Rohingya captives and a Rohingya businessman in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, who was trying to secure the freedom of the captives, his nephews.

In the conversation, the man in Yangon, who used the alias Khin Maung Win and agreed to be recorded in December by Fortify Rights as a way to expose the smuggling, first chided his nephews.

“I tried to stop you many times, to tell you not to leave this way,” he said. “You are lucky you didn’t drown in the sea. Ninety percent of the people died in the sea.”

He then haggled over the price of freedom for the young men, Ula Mya and Foyas, offering to pay 10,000 Malaysian ringgits, about $3,000, instead of the asking price of 13,000 ringgits.

The broker refused. “The Thai boss bought them from Thai immigration,” he said.



Abdul Musid, 30, is being treated at a Thai hospital for severe testicular injuries inflicted by a smuggler whom he could not pay. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times


Later, in a telephone interview arranged by Fortify Rights, Khin Maung Win said that he had wired the 13,000 ringgits to a Malaysian bank account and that his nephews were now in Malaysia, where Foyas works on a construction site.

From Malaysia, Foyas said in a telephone interview that he had spent six months in an immigration detention cell near the border before being handed over to the smugglers’ camp from which his uncle bought him and Ula Mya their freedom.

Life in the camp was terrifying and the two meals a day scanty, he said, adding that the smugglers had punished a man who tried to escape by amputating four fingers on his right hand.

Asked about the charge that Thai immigration officials had sold Foyas and Ula Mya to smugglers, General Thatchai, who was installed as commissioner of immigration in Songkhla five months ago as a new face, said he would investigate. “If I find any officer involved in the smuggling, I will punish him,” he said. “I don’t have enough evidence, only rumor.”

Sugarcoated Deportation

At the port of Ranong this month, General Thatchai organized a “soft” deportation intended to show that while Thailand was acting in its own interests by not keeping the Rohingya for long periods, it was not sending them back to Myanmar, where they would be persecuted.

Seventy Rohingya, wearing orange life jackets issued by the Thai authorities, were loaded onto three small wooden boats at a jetty just three miles from Myanmar, on the other side of the water.



Rohingya refugees fill the detention cells of Songkhla, in southern Thailand. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times


One of the men wiped away tears as he boarded, clutching a cellophane-wrapped pack of noodles and palm sugar and about $7 in Thai currency, a parting gift from the Thais. “We don’t know where we are going,” one said.

The boats set off in the afternoon light, and when the cameras turned away, the Rohingya looked tense and afraid.

In this case, they would land in a remote Myanmar fishing village away from government authorities, but in a zone patrolled by smugglers. It was highly likely, General Thatchai said, that some would fall prey again. “About 20 percent will be back with the smugglers,” he said.

“About 80 percent will be back with the smugglers,” countered Chutima Sidasthian, a Thai journalist who writes frequently about the Rohingya for the online news agency Phuketwan.

Five days later, five of the men sent off from Ranong were back with smugglers in Hat Yai, said Abdul Kalam, president of the Rohingya Association of Thailand, a group that provides social services.

Mr. Musid’s future looked particularly bleak.

After nine days in the hospital, immigration officers took him to the crowded detention center at Songkhla under General Thatchai’s jurisdiction. “He has no relatives in Malaysia,” Mr. Kalam said. “There is nothing to do.”

There was little doubt, said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, that Mr. Musid would be taken from the detention cell and put through the “soft” deportation exercise.

From there he would again be caught in a web of smugglers, who, when they discovered that Mr. Musid had no way to pay for his freedom, would resort to their final disposal tactic.

Those without money are sold as cheap labor onto fishing boats that work the Gulf of Thailand, Mr. Smith said, a long, hard servitude that makes the dream of Malaysia ever more distant.

 Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.