‘’They threw people asking water into the water’’
Firsthand accounts of Rohingya refugees on their perilous journey
Lee Yu Kyung in Kuala Lumpur, Penang (Malaysia) / Bangkok (Thailand)
Jani Alam, a 25 year old supposedly in full of vigor, is walking slow and painfully. Having feet slightly swollen, the ‘exercise’ is the only ‘treatment’ besides ‘snake oil message’ by 60 year old traditional doctor, Guramia Saiyid. Both Jani and Guramia are stateless Rohingya refugees from Arakan state in western Burma now living in Malaysia. Guramia has lived in the country for 11 years, while Jani has arrived 4 months ago.
‘’In the past months, dozens of refugees arrived almost every day. This month, May, a bit decreasing” said Jamar Udin (41) a neighbor and also a Rohingya. According to Jamar, many of the newly arrived have difficulty for walking. The reason is lack of exercise.
It was last November that Jani got on the boat in Bangladesh, to where he crossed Naf River from Arakan State. Since then, he hardly stretched or moved his legs for months. During 7 days journey from Bangladesh to Thai shore, 2-3 persons per day died, he said. After he arrived at Thai shore, smugglers used Toyota pickup truck, in which Jani and others were stacked atop one another to have perfect condition to be suffocated.
Having been tossed over from boat to truck, from shore to jungle, from Bangladesh via Thailand to Malaysia, smugglers were absolutely dictating desperate bodies. After terrible ordeals, survivors were dropped off at Penang the northwest coast of Malaysia.
Lack of exercise causing serious inability
‘’Rakhine Buddhists armed with arrows, machetes and sticks came to our village to destroy everything. NASAKA (the border police in Arakan State) who just watched it, however, started to shot at us as we tried to put out the fire. My both parents succumbed to their bullet wounds after three days”.
Jani described the first wave of Buddhist riots June last year in Soparan village, Buddhing township, one of the two townships imposed the notorious ‘two child limited’ policy. The violence was initiated as an inter-communal one but quickly turned to be a massacre against Rohingya. As he saw the second wave of riots in October when targets were expanded to Kaman Muslims, who are recognized citizens unlike Rohingya, Jani decided to leave the country.
Among thousands of victims of October riot is Salim Bin Gulban (48), Kaman business man, who arrived at Malaysia in mid-January. To Salim’s witness, security forces set a blaze of 6 boats in Kyawkpyu between 9 am and 4pm in October 23, as a number of people rushed to the jetty in an attempt to flee by boat. When tide came around 4pm, people hurriedly got on remained boats to flee to either Sittwe or Sinnamaw, a small Island near Sittwe.
Soon after fleeing to Sittwe, Salim had to move Sinnamaw to unite his wife as the couple was separated in turmoil. After one month, Salim’s couple and 74 others fled the country by his own boat, he claimed. They have made a direct journey from Arakan state to Malaysia with little trouble, while Rohingya who normally rely on Smuggler’s hands from Bangladesh have experienced trouble to a great extent.
‘’We met Indian Navy 4 days after departure. They helped us to direct the way for Malaysia and also have given us drinking water’’
Salim’s troupe has arrived Malaysian shore, where Malaysian Navy found and brought them to Lankawi. They were provided food and health check-up at first. Some of them including Salim have been released to community after an interview with UNHCR as of mid-May.
According to UN’s estimation, around 20,000 people (13,000 last year and 7,000 in the first two months of this year) fled the country by sea since the religious riots broke out June last year, which is unprecedented and significant, and continued. Recent reports indicated that Bangladeshi authorities continued to arrest and push back Rohingya attempting to flee Arakan State. On top of that, on June 16, a boat en route to Malaysia carrying 28 people including Rohingya, departed off Cox’s Bazaar but at least six boat people drowned. Nontheless, unprecedented fleeing seems to continue.
There’s another unprecedented phenomenon, as UNHCR analyzed, that Women and Children started to join the dangerous voyage. Among them were Salima Nora Ahmad, 25 year old Rohingya woman, and Nurul Islam, 14 year old Kaman Muslim.
Direct route vs. Smugglers’ route
It was around 10 pm, utterly dark night in April 2011 when Salima got on the boat in Maungdaw in Arakan state along with 8 others. Although she fled the country before the 2012 massacre erupted, she was absolutely convinced that life as a Rohingya was nothing worthy in Burma. Her husband, Mohamad Tandamia (25) has already left for Malaysia in 2006, where Salima was hoping to join her husband.
‘’We have no citizenship, no freedom of movement. And government grabbed our land where I built a house. So I left’’ said the husband, Mohamad. Salima had waited three days in Teknaf, Bangladesh border town, until getting on the fishing boat to travel 4-5 hours to somewhere, she thought, international sea in Bay of Bengal. There, she moved from the fishing boat to a bigger vessel, which has some 50 person capacity. The boat departed, however, when 250 people were on. The captain was Bangladesh, crews were Thai except few Burmeses, Salima asserted. All have pistol and rifle. Salima hardly stretched her legs for 18 days, during which time 18 died.
‘’14 people were suffocated to death at the bottom of the boat. The other 4 were thrown into the water by crews because they asked water. All were young men’’ She said.
‘Throwing people who ask water into the water’ was quite common allegation by boat people whom I interviewed. By contrast, crew allegedly allured women for water and food, but ended up with rape the women.
Nurul Hessen (41) who left Burma in January, said rape often occurred in his boat, where 750 persons were on.
‘’The crew ordered women to stay upper deck, where no one was allowed to stay. We heard rape sounds very often. But Muslim women wouldn’t say this’’
said Hessen. He, like many others, believed that he’s heading to Malaysia. Instead, their boats reached at Thai shore, from where ‘trafficking’ has kicked off.
‘’Throwing people asking water into the water’’
To every interviewees’ accounts, there were ‘uniformed men’ who first received the boats, or were called on by smugglers when the boat arrived at Thai shore.
‘’They divided us into 22 for each pickup truck, by which we were transported to somewhere after 5-6 hours journey. From there, we were moved to jungle area. It took nearly two days for 500 all were moved to jungle.’’ said Jani.
For Salima’s case, the crew ringed someone and ‘army’, as she called, arrived.
‘’The ‘army’ arrived and checked us. They divided us into 5-6 persons for each small boat and brought to jungle. From there, Thai agents showed up with pickup truck. Another 4-5 hours journey made to reach another jungle’’.
It seems the last jungle point might have been a main camp, where the asylum seekers were brought in and released out while finalizing a deal. Smugglers were calling refugees’ family or friend in Malaysia to demand 5,500-6,000 ringgit (approximately 2,000 AUD). Salima’s husband, Mohamad Tandamia did remember the moment of receiving a call. After conversation with tears, it took 14 days for him to borrow money for his wife. Although Thai authority has raided one such camp near Thai-Malaysia border early this year, the existence of such camp has not seemed to be terminated.
Meanwhile, a question is being emerged yet again. : Who were the ‘uniformed men’ at sea? It is natural to come across the Thai Navy at first. In fact, ‘Thai Navy’ or ‘Thai Military’ have involved in ‘Rohingya scandal’ for the past years. Notably in 2009, they forcibly removed engine of Rohingya boat before pushing back them to the sea. In February 22 this year, reports suggested that Thai Navy shot at Rohingya refugees who refused or jumped out from small boats into which the Navy tried them on board for transportation. Two people were reportedly dead. The latter case resembled to the Samila’s accounts, in which she and other refugees were transported by small boats under command of the ‘uniformed men’.
In an email interview, the Navy denied the allegation. It states :
‘..In case of detecting for the Rohingya boat if the vessel is located outside the territorial sea, Naval officer will conduct humanitarian assistance by providing food, water and make recommendations for direction to go on. If Rohingya people are trying to enter the territorial sea, they will be forwarded to the relevant authorities. The whole procedure are based on the humanitarian principles of law..’’.
‘’It’s very difficult to know who they are” said Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, who carefully approaches this matter. “To be honest I have no clear evidence that Thai authority involved in trafficking. But I’m almost convinced that it could be some sort of militia.’’ She added. In terms of past atrocities such as ‘pushing back the boat to the sea’, she said ‘’they won’t do this without receiving order from high level of command’’
In a relevant development, Phuket Wan – the Phuket’s local website -, which recently has reported Rohingya issues, suggested that Rohingya boatpeople “reportedly sold on by renegades in the military and among local police”.
‘Uniformed men’ handed over refugees to smugglers
At the hands of smugglers in a jungle camp, Rohingya asylum seekers went through terrible ordeal.
‘’If we made sounds, the agents would torture us. They pulled someone’s teeth out’’.
said Jani. While he was in jungle, ten persons were killed, including four attempting to escape. Jani has spent almost two months as he had no one in Malaysia. Finally his uncle in Burma helped him out.
As for Nurul Hessen, he was lucky to be released after 4 days thanks to his friend in Malaysia. When He left the jungle camp, there were about 300 remained.
What would happen to those who couldn’t pay? It’s highly likely that they would be sold out to Thai fishing boats as modern slaves. The US State Department’s annual report of Trafficking In Person (TIP) released on June 20 states,
‘’There were reports that some Rohingya asylum seekers transiting Thailand on route to Malaysia were sold into forced labor on Thai fishing boats, reportedly with the assistance of Thai military officials’’
Still, nowhere to go
After paying and reaching Malaysia, they hope the country would be ‘safer’ from violence at least.
Yet, the least hope has seemed shaky in recent as violence broke out between Burmese migrant communities in Malaysia on May 30 and onwards. It’s not clear who were ‘assailants’ to attack Buddhist Burmeses in Malaysia, but Malaysian police indicated trouble at home was spilled over to Malaysia.
On June 11, Zin Yaw, Burma’s deputy minister of foreign affairs with other delegations departed for Malaysia to provide protection to, what he called, ‘’our Burmese’’. It is difficult to assume the minister included Rohingya for ‘his Burmese’.
‘’I’ve just got an information that one Rohingya was killed hours ago in Ampang area in Kuala Lumpur. But I can’t go there now out of fear’’ Zafar Ahmad, president of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MEHROM) said in a phone interview a day after Malaysia’s announcement of repatriation of Burmese migrants.
‘’There’s no place we can move freely. Not in Burma now in Malaysia’’ he lamented.
This is echoed by Chris Lewa, who researched Rohingya issue for more than 6 years.
‘’They have nowhere to go. No one wants them in the region. I want (media) to more highlight dire situation in Arakan state rather than highlighting smuggling issues. If you see the condition where they live in Arakan, oh my god, you gonna be on a boat’’