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 payment of $1,800 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 fled Myanmar by sea this past 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, also 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, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, 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 neighboring 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, which supplies consumers in the United States, Japan and Europe.
Some Rohingya women are sold as brides, Reuters found. Other Rohingya languish in overcrowded Thai and Malaysian immigration detention centers.
Reuters 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 neighboring countries. A one-way voyage typically costs about 200,000 kyat, or $205, a small fortune by local standards. The extended Rohingya families who raise the sum regard it as an investment; many survive off money sent from relatives overseas.
The number boarding boats from Myanmar and neighboring 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. Unprecedented numbers of women and children are making these dangerous voyages.
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 state 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 state. 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 Southeast 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. Rohingya families in some areas have been banned from having more than two children.
Sabur’s 33-member extended family spent several months wandering between camps before the family patriarch, an Islamic teacher in Malaysia named Arif Ali, helped them buy a fishing boat. They planned to sail straight to Malaysia to avoid Thailand’s notorious smugglers.
Dozens of other paying passengers signed up for the voyage, along with an inexperienced captain who steered them to disaster.
DYING, ONE BY ONE
The small fishing boat set off from Myengu Island near Sittwe on February 15. The first two days went smoothly. Passengers huddled in groups, eating rice, dried fish and potatoes cooked in small pots over firewood. Space was so tight no one could stretch their legs while sleeping, said Rahim, the rice farmer, who like many Rohingya Muslims goes by one name.
Rahim’s last few months had been horrific. A Rakhine mob killed his older brother in October and burned his family’s rice farm to the ground. He spent two months in jail and was never told why. “The charge seemed to be that I was a young man,” he said. Rakhine state authorities have acknowledged arresting Rohingya men deemed a threat to security.
High seas and gusting winds nearly swamped the boat on the third day. The captain seemed to panic, survivors said. Fearing the ship would capsize, he dumped five bags of rice and two water tanks overboard – half their supplies.
It steadied, but it was soon clear they had another problem – the captain admitted he was lost. By February 24, after more than a week at sea, supplies of water, food and fuel were gone.
“People started dying, one by one,” said Sabmeraz, the grandmother.
The Islamic janaza funeral prayer was whispered over the washed and shrouded corpses of four women and two children who died first. Among them: Sabmeraz’s daughter and two young grandchildren.
— Phuket Gazette Editors