Sea and Jungle, Dead or Alive

Note : The story below is an English version in variety of the article in Korean published here. It appears first here.

All Rights Reserved © Lee Yu Kyung 2015


Rafique (name changed), 37-year old Rohingya was presumed dead until recently. When he desperately called his family asking to pay his captors ‘ransom’ amount 2,600 Malaysia Ringit (620 Euro), his family seemed unhappy.

“Because my family already paid 8,350 Ringit (1,980 Euro) to my previous captors. But I wasn’t freed. That’s why my family has presumed I was dead.”

Rafique got a freedom early May, 6 months after getting on smugglers’ boat heading to Malaysia via Thailand. Yet, he doesn’t feel free to move around now in Malaysia due to severely fragile body. And he did not have any documentation.

Freed, but no free

When Thailand has revealed 36 graves, 26 bodies and 7 ‘jungle camps’ in Padang Besar, Songkhla province near Thai-Malaysia border on May 1st, it has shocked the world albeit the story of ‘jungle camp’, where smuggling syndicates have kept Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants for ransom, has been reported multiple times in recent years.

The revelation was timely headlined as Thailand has faced with international criticism for its horrendous record of human trafficking. A Rohinhgy activist in Thailand, who’s been closely following smuggling cases for years, confidently estimated 2000-3000 dead bodies in total might have been buried in jungle area for the past 2 years or so. “There are 120 graves in public cemetery in Hat Yai (in Songkhla province)” He said.

Aung Mingalar, the last Muslim quarter in Sittwe Arakan State. The blockade of basic livelihood and aid for the Muslims ghetto as well as Internally Displaced Persons’ Camp on the outskirt of Sittwe have suggested why Rohingya Muslims from Burma (or Myanmar) have fled to get on the boat for perilous journey in the first place. Rohingya is stateless people, whom UN says one of the most persecuted minorities. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Aung Mingalar, the last Muslim quarter in Sittwe Arakan State. The blockade of basic livelihood and aid for the Muslims ghetto as well as Internally Displaced Persons’ Camp on the outskirt of Sittwe have suggested why Rohingya Muslims from Burma (or Myanmar) have fled to get on the boat for perilous journey in the first place. Rohingya is stateless people, whom UN says one of the most persecuted minorities. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Jungle camp has shamed Thailand on one hand. Scenes of digging graves, wrapping dead bodies and showing skeleton and remains have built up the image that the country was serious about tackling trafficking on the other. One of the most striking ‘images’ was senior army adviser Lt.Gen. Manas Kongpan surrendered. The former head ofInternal Security Operation Command (or ISOC) is facing with 13 chrages such as trafficking children, abducting and ransoming illgal migrants. He was at the center of scandalous episode in 2009, when Thai navy towed Rohingya boat to offshore setting it adrift having removed the engine on the orders of an ISOC colonel at the scene. According to eyewitness, the then colonel at the scene was today’s Lt. Gen Manas.

Malaysia too have discovered far more from a jungle in Perlis, the border state with Thailand on May 24 : 139 graves, 28 jungle camps and 106 dead bodies. The Malaysian government is planing of fencing along the 2,666 km border with Thailand to prevent from trafficking occurred. On June 22, a month after the first discovery, funeral of 21 unidentified victims was held.  ‘Sombre farewell’ is what media entitle the funeral. Next day, Thailand has ‘completed’ the investigation into the Rohingya human trafficking. The Police Chief, Pol Gen Somyot Phumphanmuang said at a press conference that 119 suspects in total would be prosecuted. 56 of them had been arrested and 63 others still at large. Neither government has searched on either side of jungle anymore.

There has been a haunting question however. Where are those who could not afford ransom nor found in the latest revelation, which hasn’t last longer rather but one time public stunt?

“We were 9 of us, incluing two women who were held for 6 months and two Bangladeshis. We escaped at night. If caught up by guards or even by tigers, we were ready to die.”

Rafique, whom this writer conducted extensive interview through a mediator over a week from end of May till early June, explained of his escape from what he remembered “Tiger Forest”, as the area was known to have Tigers. Escape was done shortly before the noisy crackdown early May. Although a month or so passed, Rafique believed “people still there”, dead or alive.

“People still there” A survivor haunted

Back in early May, two youths aged 14 and 17 found in jungle by Thai police reportedly said “the prisoners had been dispersed shortly before officers moved in on May 1”

However, no news ever heard that high number of people were found or emerged from mountaineous jungle. In fact, jungle hasn’t been paid much attention to, after focus of media was shifted to the sea, as like hadn’t been the sea ealier while shocking image of graves in jungle was at the center of the story. Some cautiously shared the view that people might have been trapped somewhere in forest, although situation was subject to change daily basis.

“Perhaps the number would not be much high though, yes, there are people I believe”.

Cox Bazar, Port city in Bangladesh’s South East. The city has been home to hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma (or Myanmar) for decades. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Cox Bazar, Port city in Bangladesh’s South East. The city has been home to hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma (or Myanmar) for decades. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Chris Lewa, director of <Arakan Project>, International NGO specialized in Rohingya, said as of early June.

“About two weeks ago, we have heard that people kept in Thai side of jungle. Whether they are in camps or houses, we don’t know. But brokers were in Malaysia as there’re many people out there near border.”

Chris indicated that there’s no shortage of people who would ‘guard’ those held in the border area.

It is understood that villagers, landlords, officials and security forces in the border area have all been involved in smuggling business to some extent. It’s far broader and transnational.

Chumima Sidasathian, Thai journalist for <PhuketWan>, has followed the the issue for longer period than any other journalist in the region. At a forum orgaznied by Foreign Coresspondent Club of Thailand on June 3, she responded to a question if there’s no more camp.

“To my understanding, camps (might have been) destroyed by officers. But most of villagers have involved in the smuggling business. They have housed 40 or 60, or upto 100 of Rohingya in their house. I thought it’s dangerous.”

“House” has been fuctioned as a transit point when smugglers transport people from one place to other. Rafique wasn’t exception of this experience. Moreover, he heard from an assistance of brokers that there were 120 jungle camps squattered around the border. Chris of <Arakan Project> viewed majority of the camps are in Thai side. “No doubt about that” she said.

“Why has Thai authority searched only one specific area? What about rest of the other areas in the border?” she asked.

“120 jungle camps” claimed along the Thai-Malaysia border

Rafique first fled to Bangladesh years ago. His journey as a refugee reflects scars of Myanmar’s decades-old persecution of Rohingya as well as failure of refugee policy in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has been overwhelmed with estimatedly between 200,000 and 500,000 Rohingyas, who fled Myanmar ever since 1978. Of them around 32,000 got an official recognition as a refugee while rest of them has been virtually denied to be a refugee. They have lived in poorest neighborhood in one of the poortest country on earth for nearly 40 years. Job opportunity has been contended between local Bangladeshis and Rohingya refugees.

A Rohingya refugee in Malaysia reenacted what happened while he was on the boat in 2013. The number of boat refugee, mostly Rohingya, has been dramatically increased as a result of violcence in 2012. Even since women and children have been among the boat people. And more and more Bangladeshi migrants have also been seen in the boat (© Lee Yu Kyung)

A Rohingya refugee in Malaysia reenacted what happened while he was on the boat in 2013. The number of boat refugee, mostly Rohingya, has been dramatically increased as a result of violcence in 2012. Even since women and children have been among the boat people. And more and more Bangladeshi migrants have also been seen in the boat (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Rohingya refugees, whose lives have become absolute limbo in Bangladesh, have constituted segment of boat refugees for years. One of those refugees from Bangladesh camp said that 160,000 taka (1,840 Euro) is needed for whole journey while 10,000 taka (115 Euro) should be paid before departure.

“Some family paid trafficker by UN ration card as they have no money at all”, he said.

“UN ration for the family would be taken by traffickers who would sell the items in the market to fill the ransom. Once ransom completed, the card would be returned to the family.”

While this practice hightlighted how desperate Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh soil want flight from limbo and insecurity, growing number of Bangladeshis migrants on boat has implicated the country’s persistent poverty. The testimony of fighting between Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh migrants over food at one of the boats rescued in Aceh is an extreme reminder of complicate animosity of the two communities. Yet, the two communities have been all along together the perilous journey, often by the same boat. This is the case of Rafique too.

His boat having 600 people arrived at Thai shore after 7 days journey in November last year. But the boat was unable to disembark, thus floated at sea for 8 days because of crackdown. On 9th day, smaller boat came to transport about half of them in smaller groups to jungle camp. Two days later, the rest of 300 including Rafique were going to be transported. At that point, Thai police appeared. What the police first did was to demand money, threatening arrest all otherwise.

“Thai police asked 70,000 Thai Baht (1,850 Euro). But smuggler replied 50,000 Baht (1,320 Euro). Deal failed. We got arrested” said Rafique.

“We were detained first 8 days in police camp before being transferred to Immigration Detention Center. After two months in IDC, police told us we would be sent to Malaysia.”

Police were grouping ‘five in one’ to drive them for about 30 minutes to the shore, where Rafique and hundreds others were ‘received’ by what Rafique confidently said “Myanmar traffickers” as they spoke Burmese.

The claim that Thai authority “handed over” Rohingyas to traffickers was known as “Soft Deportation” since years ago. Or “Option Two”, of which Reuters on Dec. 5, 2013 reported :

“Clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thaialnd’s immigration detention centers and deliever them to human traffickers waiting at sea”.

This is almost exactly what happened to Salim (name changed) as well, whom this writer interviewed a year ago in Malaysia. Salim’s group was handed over by Thai authority to traffickers in late 2012, a year earlier than Reuters’ report.

“Thai police have cracked down our first jungle camp and arrested all of us but brokers who ran away. In a police station, we were questioned and signed on paper, which I had no idea what it was about. Villagers came and did farewell us. Some of them were even crying. Then police brought us to the shore, where another group of traffickers received us. They took us another jungle camp, where I had to stay for 4 months because my family could not pay timely.”

Rohingya woman in IDPs camp on the outskirt of  Sittwe, capital of Arakan state Western Burma. As of interview time in August 2013, she said her son went to Thailand by boat six month ago but ever since no news of him. Boat people crisis in recent month has highlighted persecution which Rohingya has been facing for decades and also persistent poverty that Bangladeshi migrant wants to flee from. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Rohingya woman in IDPs camp on the outskirt of Sittwe, capital of Arakan state Western Burma. As of interview time in August 2013, she said her son went to Thailand by boat six month ago but ever since no news of him. Boat people crisis in recent month has highlighted persecution which Rohingya has been facing for decades and also persistent poverty that Bangladeshi migrant wants to flee from. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

Shalim has left Sittwe, Myanmar in September 2012, months after the first wave of violence in June of that year. His boat was arranged with help of now defunct ‘Nasaka’ forces, the notorious security forces designed for ‘Rohingya affairs’. He paid 200,000 Kyat (160 Euro) for getting on boat and also paid significant amount to different security forces along the coastal line in Sittwe, in western Burma. Shalim hardly forget what Nasaka told him.

“Please go, never return”.

‘Soft deportation’ or ‘Option 2’ : as lately as early 2015

It was supposed to be late Feb or early March this year when Rafique was ‘handed over’ to “Myanmar traffickers”, who transported them by small boat to deep forest. He could see only “very grim light”. After 2 nights, Myanmar traffickers handed over them to Thai traffickers.

“Thai traffickers took us to one large Thai house where we spent two nights. And then we were asked to walk to reach rubber plantation farm near Malaysia border. During this movement, traffickers shot those who were unable to move or appeared too weak.”

Rafique saw 4 groups at final point, which was called “Tiger forest”. Each group had about 200 to make total about 800 or so. It was here Rafique first paid ‘usual amount’ of ransom but was told “pay double” by Thai traffickers who said they ‘bought’ him from ‘Myanmar trafficker’.

A Rohingya refugee in Malaysia reenacted what happened while he was on the boat in 2013. The number of boat refugee, mostly Rohingya, has been dramatically increased as a result of violcence in 2012. Even since women and children have been among the boat people. And more and more Bangladeshi migrants have also been seen in the boat (© Lee Yu Kyung)

A Rohingya boat refugee in Malaysia is doing self-physical therapy using rubber string. Most of boat refugee have suffered from partial paralyze out of lack of exercise while in a sea and jungle camp. Some medical expert views it’s caused with acute shortage of Vitamin B. (© Lee Yu Kyung)

“Whenever Thai police came near our camp, we had to run for other camp nearby. Likewise, we have changed camp 8 times during two months captivity by Thai traffickers. No food no water, we have had to survive with leaves” Rafique said. Torture and rape routinely happened. One woman in Rafique’s group gave a birth in jungle, he said. It was ‘death camp’. it was ‘birth camp’.

Rafique escaped with 8 others one night. The group encountered a villager, who took them to his house and kept them in ‘cattle shed’ for two days. The villager, whom Rafique thought ‘Thai’ living near Malaysia border, called Rohingya traffickers in Alor Setar in Kedah, northern state of Malaysia. The villager drove them to Alor Setar by his own vehicle and handed over them to Rohingya traffickers. The last captors asked another ransom 2,600 Ringit each. Rafique was the only one managed to pay.

“I do not know what happened to others. If they haven’t paid, they must be in traffickers’ hand in Alor Setar, if alive.”

Death camp, birth camp

While jungle has got quickly sealed off, sea hasn’t gained its momentum of rescue operation conducted by regional governments. Ironically, it was Burmese Navy who rescued two boats having nearly a thousand. The Navy has claimed boat people were “Bengalis” or “from Bangladeshi”. In fact a few Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were among 150 “Bengalis” who were repatriated from the first rescued boat to Bangladesh on June 8 after being scrutinized. On top of that, UCANEWS  has reported on June 23 that Arakan state has returned 195 Rohingys, who deemed to be from the second rescued boat on May 29, to their respective township in Arakan state, This sharply contradicts to what the various officials from Arakan state and Burmese government have persisted “Boat people came from Bangladesh” denying persecution as a root cause in the country.

As of early June UN suggested 5,600 disembarked, thus thousands still are thought to be stranded at sea. Out of 5,600 some 2,000 have been rescued by Acehnese fishermen defying the warning by authority “not to rescue”. This remains latest figure for sea, while no one knows any figure at all around jungle.

The second boat having over 700 rescued by Burmese Navy on May 29. The government of Burma (or Myanmar) claimed that boat people were “Bengalis” or “from Bangladeshi”. (Photo : Ministry of Information of Myanmar)

The second boat having over 700 rescued by Burmese Navy on May 29. The government of Burma (or Myanmar) claimed that boat people were “Bengalis” or “from Bangladeshi”. (Photo : Ministry of Information of Myanmar)

Although concern over the fate of people at sea and jungle has been quickly fading away, there are families and friends who have been increasingly distressed having no clue of their loved ones who left by boats in recent months. Sadek (name changed) is one of them. In late April, Sadek – Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh – was about to get on the boat along with his friends, who have not been heard till today after departure. On the planned departure day, Sadek’s mother sensed that her son’s dirty cloths should be a sign of leaving. Mother stopped him, who otherwise would have been stranded somewhere at sea, if alive.

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