Thai smug­gling crack­down leaves Myan­mar’s Ro­hingya in limbo

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Five years have passed since Hla Hla Sein was forced into a dis­place­ment camp in western Myan­mar for Ro­hingya Mus­lims, where dis­ease and de­pri­va­tion are rife and armed guards pa­trol a barbed-wire perime­ter. But af­ter a crack­down on the in­ter­na­tional smug­gling routes that once of­fered a dan­ger­ous-but vi­able-es­cape route, she now sees no way out. “We have no idea how many years we will have to live like this,” the 40-year-old widow said in­side the tiny bam­boo hut she shares with her son, tug­ging ner­vously at her pur­ple head­scarf.

“Our lives are worse than an­i­mals... we are hu­man only in name.” Deadly sec­tar­ian ri­ots in 2012 drove more than 120,000 Ro­hingya into the camps in Rakhine State, where they live in ram­shackle homes and are de­prived of ad­e­quate food, schools and doc­tors. For years hu­man traf­fick­ers cashed in on the group’s des­per­a­tion, fer­ry­ing thou­sands of Ro­hingya across the An­daman Sea to coun­tries like Thai­land, Indonesia and Malaysia. The jour­neys were de­fined by dan­ger: from rick­ety boats on high seas to abuse and even death at the hands of the gangs, who held many vic­tims for ran­som in jungle camps on the ThaiMalaysia bor­der.

That route was shut­tered by Thai­land’s junta in 2015 and few boats have left the camps since, ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents, aid work­ers and mi­gra­tion ex­perts. The move may have spared Hla Hla Sein death at sea or abuse at the hands of smugglers, but it also cut off a way out of a painful limbo. While a Bangkok court rules yes­ter­day on the fate of more than 100 peo­ple ar­rested for run­ning the traf­fick­ing net­work, she will spend an­other day dis­tribut­ing food ra­tions in the camp.

Ready to die

Hla Hla Sein and her son had tried to es­cape to Malaysia be­fore the crack­down, but their boat was so over­crowded it started to sink a few hours into the jour­ney, forc­ing the cap­tain to turn back. It was only af­ter they re­turned to shore that she found out the smugglers had planned to sell them as slaves at their des­ti­na­tion. “I was ready to die at sea as we have noth­ing in this coun­try,” she said. “Our chil­dren can­not get ed­u­ca­tion, even I can­not work. I thought dy­ing would be bet­ter.”

Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myan­mar has long been chas­tised for its treat­ment of the Ro­hingya, a group of more than a mil­lion Mus­lims whose rights and free­doms have been suc­ces­sively stripped away since the early 1980s. Over the past five years al­most 170,000 have fled the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the UN’s refugee agency, leav­ing many fam­i­lies split across bor­ders. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to go to Malaysia by boat nowa­days,” said a Ro­hingya camp leader, ask­ing not to be named. “We do not want peo­ple to die at sea.” Re­cently, a new out­burst of vi­o­lence in north­ern Rakhine pushed more than 70,000 Ro­hingyas across Myan­mar’s north­west­ern bor­der to Bangladesh. — AFP

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