The Rohingya people: exploited, enslaved and trafficked in Burma and Thailand

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In 2012, Burma captured the world’s attention by making sweeping changes within its authoritarian government. Its president, Thein Sein, introduced laws that relaxed censorship, freed political prisoners, and legalized the National League for Democracy, a wildly popular party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

But while the world applauded Sein and praised his commitment to democracy, it seemed like they forgot that one of the world’s most persecuted minorities comes from Burma- the Rohingya people. As the Human Rights Watch reported in April, their situation fell to a new, devastating low in 2012 due to the Rakhine State Riots. These riots, ignited by the rape of an ethnic Buddhist Rakhine woman, led to the displacement of the Rohingya population into concentration camps. A UN official who had visited them in April stated:

“There is torture, humiliating torture. They are kept without food, water, clothes, in very bad conditions. They could be forced to work, to do things against their will…people die from beatings”.

The Rohingya’s vulnerability is so complete that anywhere they go, they are ultimately exploited, enslaved or trafficked. Chris Lewa, in his article to the Forced Migration Review, states that their terrible socio-economic condition in Burma means that other Burmese people can take advantage of them with impunity. The government itself regularly forces the Rohingya to provide labor or sexual services in military camps, where they are isolated and mentally and physically abused. When the Rohingya try to escape to Thailand, a bordering country, they are sold into slavery, left to die, or sent back home to live in the same conditions they were fleeing. They are almost never accepted as refugees.

The Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations and most are born there. But the Burmese government considers them “illegal immigrants” because they originally came from Bangladesh decades ago. As a Human Rights Watch report from April shows, the majority of Burmese people, who are Buddhist, support the government in its targeting of the Muslim Rohingya. In 1978 the military forced out 200,000 Rohingyas in a spree of killings, rape, and arson. 250,000 more were driven to Bangladesh in 1991, many of whom were forced to return to Burma. The Rakhine-Rohingya riots of 2012 have exposed tens of thousands to more hardship and persecution.

In his article, Lewa details the law the Burmese government issued in 1982 that denied the Rohingyas citizenship and its consequences. In 1989, when the government introduced Citizens Scrutiny Cards (CSC), it divided citizens into three categories: full citizens (pink card), associate citizens (blue card), and naturalized citizens (green card). The Rohingya were not issued any of these. Instead, six years later, after pressure from the United Nations, the Rohingya were issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRC), which were ultimately unhelpful and offered absolutely no protection. Mrauk-U and Thandwe, in their article in The Economist, emphasize that the lauded “reformist” Thein Sein said that the only solution to the ethnic clashes between Rohingyas and the rest of the Burmese people would be to relocate all the Rohingya to another country. The government owned newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, once stated that “there is no national race by the name of Rohingya”.

This discrimination against the Rohingyas amounts to no less than targeted persecution, as Lewa’s article shows. Their movement within the country is severely limited. They are restricted to their villages, and need to get a special permit to travel outside to reach medical facilities or go to school. Because these permits are hard to get, their medical problems reach astronomically high levels relative to the rest of the country and their literacy rates are sunk at 20%. Rampant poverty among the Rohingyas is another cause for concern. They cannot find a job anywhere because of discrimination, a permanently bad economy, and a lack of education; they are also banned from working in civil service.

There is also insurmountable evidence that the Rohingya people are victims of human trafficking- and that the trafficker is their own government.The United States’ annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report states that Burmese authorities regularly force the Rohingya into slavery for the military and government. Because the army is oversized, badly managed, and riddled with corruption, the government cannot always provide soldiers with enough food or money. The soldiers then turn to exploiting vulnerable Rohingya villages. They take over their homes, steal their rice and livestock, and demand bribes at checkpoints.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a media organization based in Thailand, shows that even more horrifying forms of human trafficking take place in military installations. The military regularly uses kidnapped children as soldiers. Villagers, even children as young as seven, are forced to provide labor and are threatened with torture or death if they refuse. Usually, men have to “offer” their services once every three days, but forced labor for many weeks at a time is not unheard of. Women are often abducted and forced to provide soldiers with sexual services. According tot he DVB, more than a third of Rohingya reported that at least one woman in their family had been raped by military personnel. These men, women and children are dragged from their homes and forced to march all night to the military camps where they will be enslaved.

In 2012, the situation greatly worsened for the Rohingya with the Rakhine State Riots. Fracis Wade, journalist for The Guardian, writes about Rakhine Buddhists killing the Rohingya in greater numbers than ever before, and the military declaring a state of emergency in Rakhine State. This allowed the military to force the Rohingya out of their homes and into camps, where food, medical services, and movement are restricted. Buddhist monks formed organizations that blocked any aid from entering these camps. Staying in Burma was beginning to mean total enslavement or an inevitable death sentence. More than 35,000 Rohingya have tried to flee Burma, usually to Thailand.

The DVB details the process that most people follow to try and escape. To be taken out of Burma, an individual or family puts together whatever little money they have to pay a smuggler. Often, however, these smugglers are actually traffickers. Sometimes, these traffickers force the victim’s family to pay over $2000, threatening them with torture or death. Most Rohingya are sold off as slaves. They are forced to work in the sex industry, in homes as domestic servants, or in forced labor. Children are made to be beggars or work in sweatshops. Usually, the Burmese fill in difficult or dangerous jobs that Thai people do not want, and they do so with little pay (if any) and absolutely no form of protection. They are left with nowhere to go.

The Thai government, far from helping the Rohingya, is part of the problem. The Human Rights Watch report from January details how once they arrive in Thailand, the Rohingya people are not classified as refugees; rather, they are once again called “illegal immigrants” and sent back to Burma. En route, they are again exposed to traffickers who promise to take them to Indonesia or Malaysia for exorbitant prices. However, under strong international pressure after the Rakhine State Riots, the Thai government agreed to give the fleeing Rohingyas a temporary place to stay. Now they are being put in overcrowded and badly secured shelters all over the country; families are often split apart.

Human traffickers find it easy to access these government camps and take advantage of the people living there because they promise re-unifications and job opportunities. Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, lamented the lack of security and safety in these government-run shelters: “…it is unacceptable that those involved in trafficking and abusing of Rohingya operate with impunity, while the victims are left with little or no protection from Thai authorities…their plight has worsened at the hands of traffickers and corrupt Thai officials”. The police and military are paid off to turn a blind eye to what is happening and deny it completely. In fact, when Reuters published these findings, the Thai navy sued the journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian for slander.

If Thai authorities are not piling the Rohingya into badly managed and ill-secured shelters or selling them to traffickers to be enslaved, they simply force the Rohingya to leave, Zoe Daniel from ABC News reports. Sometimes, the navy takes out the batteries from the refugee boat, tows out to sea, and abandons it with everyone still inside. Here, the Rohingya are once again at the mercy of traffickers promising to take them onwards to Malaysia or Indonesia. In one such boat, 96 people died to due to a lack of food and water before it managed to reach Sri Lanka. The conditions are abhorrent. Each person wears a color-coded wristband that demonstrates their belonging to a certain group of traffickers. They are then squeezed into false decks and forced into tiny, overcrowded cages. John Sparks from Channel 4 News reported in August that conditions are so bad that people commit suicide while on the ship. When they reach their destination, the women are usually sold as mail-order brides or maids while the men are sold into slavery.

Everywhere they go, the Rohingya people are vulnerable to being trafficked. Persecution and indifference had made this possible. In order to rectify this situation and ensure the human rights of the Rohingya, the international community needs to take drastic action. First of all, the Thai government should provide safe asylum to the Rohingya instead of forcing them out. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) must be allowed into Thailand to screen refugees and ensure that appropriate protection measures are enforced. Thailand should also allow the Rohingya to seek temporary migrant worker status, which is currently being denied because they do not have a valid nationality.

Most importantly, the Burmese government should be pressured to change their treatment of the Rohingya. The Rohingya must be given citizenship, freedom, and rights. This is the only way that the Rohingya can change their vulnerable conditions, and the only way their exploitation will stop. ASEAN, the UN, the EU, and the US need to apply pressure on Sein and his government to act against the Rohingya’s persecution. If it continues, we will be looking at generations of Rohingya sold again and again into slavery- with no home to ever go to.

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