Asia Times Online
April 19, 2013
PHUKET – In a narrow, damp alley at the heart of this bustling tourist hotspot sits a row of tin-roofed shacks. Hidden from view, they house Rohingya Muslims who have fled sectarian bloodshed in neighboring Myanmar.
Described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya – including women and children – have been fleeing the country by boat in growing numbers to escape communal rioting, which has killed an estimated 200 people and left tens of thousands homeless.
Although Myanmar has been widely praised for adopting democratic reforms after years of isolation, a recent spate of ethnic clashes has raised fresh concerns about its stability.
Last month, Buddhist mobs were locked in deadly clashes with Muslims, burning homes and mosques, in the central part of the country. The carnage followed similar sectarian violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar last year.
Denied citizenship by the authorities, the stateless Rohingya – who are categorized by the United Nations as a religious and linguistic minority from western Myanmar but widely viewed inside the country as illegal Bengali migrants – seek sanctuary in neighboring countries.
Some end up in parts of Thailand, including Phuket, which is better known for its sun-drenched beaches and raucous nightlife. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a shack on the outskirts of Phuket town, Ismail, not his real name, tells a story of suffering and abuse that is a far cry from the carefree domain of the happy holidaymaker.
“I saw my neighbors’ house being burnt to the ground,” said the 47-year-old fisherman, recalling the gruesome scenes he witnessed during the violence in Rakhine state. “I could find no sign of my neighbors after that. People were being shot and stabbed. I saw a small child being hacked down like a sapling.”
The conflict erupted in June amid reports that a young Rakhine Buddhist woman had been raped and murdered by Rohingya men. As retaliatory attacks spiraled out of control, entire villages were razed, leaving an estimated 125,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya.
A state of emergency was declared, which briefly stemmed the bloodshed, but a fresh wave of violence broke out in October. This time it was not clear what sparked the clashes. Human rights groups have accused the Myanmar security forces of tacitly supporting Rakhine Buddhist outrages against the Rohingya as part of a policy to drive them out of the country.
The bloodletting certainly prompted Ismail to leave. His boat was destroyed in the rioting and he could no longer feed his family, so he decided to find work abroad. Along with 63 others, he boarded a rickety boat that sailed for 12 days, sometimes through storms, before nearing the Thai coast.
Ismail said the Thai navy captured them and sold them to people smugglers who took them by truck to a camp in southern Thailand. “We were stuffed into a small house like cattle. I had no idea where I was or what was going on.”
He lived on mouthfuls of rice scooped from a single large bowl he shared with the other captives. They slept in a cramped room next to the only toilet, which was a fetid hole in the ground covered by a sheet, he said. Those were the least of Ismail’s worries. The men who were holding him demanded 40,000 baht (US$1,400) as a “fee” for entering Thailand.
“Some days, without any reason, they would grab me, tie my arms and legs and lay me flat on my stomach,” he said. “Then, they started hitting me on my back and legs with heated metal rods and rope. After three or four blows I would pass out.”
Ismail understood that unless he could produce the money, the beatings would not stop. His captors allowed him to contact a fellow Rohingya living in Phuket, who managed to raise some of the funds. The rest came from his wife, who is still in Myanmar. To save her husband’s life, she sold a cow and sent the money to his captors via a shadowy network of brokers who took a cut, Ismail said.
After 24-days in the camp, his ordeal ended and he was sent by bus to Phuket, where he is now living illegally. Down the road from where Ismail lives is a government-run shelter housing children who have recently arrived in Thailand by sea.
“We were on the boat for days without food, we just had a small amount of water to drink,” one of the boys told this writer. “The youngest among us is four years old.”
Although Thailand has provided temporary protection to Rohingya, the government does not register them as refugees. Instead, it adheres to an official policy of “helping on” boat people to a third destination by providing them with food, water and assistance to continue their perilous journey.
But the Thai Navy has been accused of abuses, like the ones that Ismail describes. These also include shooting at boatloads of Rohingya and selling others to human traffickers. The Thai government has said it will look into the allegations.
The situation for Rohingya heading to Bangladesh and Malaysia is also far from ideal. An estimated 200,000 Rohingya languish in squalid, unofficial camps on the Bangladeshi coast and only around 28,000 of them have been registered as refugees. After violence erupted in Rakhine, Bangladesh turned away boatloads of fleeing Rohingya.
While Malaysia takes in Rohingya who arrive at its shores, the country is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This means asylum seekers are treated as illegal migrants, making it difficult for them to secure formal work.
Back in Myanmar, tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps face food shortages and the threat of disease because the government has restricted the flow of aid, said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
However, there is little public support for the Rohingya in Myanmar, said Chris Lewa, head of human rights organization the Arakan Project, which specializes in the minority group. “One key reason is religion,” she added. “There is a strong anti-Muslim discourse here.”
Those simmering tensions bubbled to the surface again last month when an apparent argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and Buddhist customers provided the first spark for deadly clashes in the central city of Meikhtila which killed around 43 and left 12,000 homeless, mostly Muslims.
The latest violence against Muslims, most of whom were not Rohingya, and Buddhists represents a challenge for the nation’s democratic reform progress.
“Who will be next?” said Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC. “This kind of ethnic and religious violence is a slippery slope for a country at such a juncture.”
Many of the Rohingya are just the latest of generations who have lived in Myanmar. Ahmed, who researched the group for his bookThe Thistle and the Drone, said the Rohingya should be granted citizenship. Such a move would bolster Myanmar’s democratic “legitimacy”, he added.
“Whether they can rise above issues of race and religion to be a united and democratic [Myanmar] will be their first and most important test.”