As a controversial election approaches in Burma (Myanmar), a new report by Amnesty International this week put the spotlight on human rights abuses in the country. Entitled “Deadly Journeys” and largely based on interviews recorded in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the document dwells at length on the refugee crisis that engulfed Southeast Asia last spring and warns that a new humanitarian disaster may ensue with the end of the monsoon season.
That people are trafficked in Southeast Asia is no secret – quoting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Amnesty writes that about 63,000 people were smuggled through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2014 alone – but in 2015 things took a turn for the worse.
The crisis began early this year, when Thai authorities cracked down on bases used by traffickers. Deprived of their safe havens, the latter abandoned thousands of people to their fate at sea (up to 10,000 people were affected in the Andaman Sea as of May this year, wrote the International Organization for Migration.)
Some were probably lost forever in the ocean, while others reached the shores of neighboring countries, where initially they were met with indifference. The first instinct of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand was to push them back – something that contravenes international laws, says Amnesty – before eventually providing some support.
The reason why all this concerns Burma is that many of those who put their life at risk are Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, the country’s western province where this small Muslim minority has suffered discrimination for decades.
The Rohingyas were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 by a citizen law which did not include them in the list of 135 officially recognized minorities – thus effectively turning them into unrecognized foreigners – and their recent history is marred by violence.
Severe clashes with Rakhine’s Buddhist majority took place in 2012, when communal tensions flared. A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch found that the violence had displaced “125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims, as well as a smaller number of Arakanese”.
According to UN estimates quoted by Amnesty, about 416,600 people are currently affected by inter-communal violence and in serious need of humanitarian assistance. Many have no choice but to escape to sea, where they become prey to smugglers who get them on board – by hook or crook, it seems – and then ask their families for ransom.
“Virtually every Rohingya – women, men and children – who spoke with Amnesty International said that they had either been beaten by the boat crews or had witnessed other passengers being beaten,” states the research, citing victims who said that the beatings were sometimes repeated and extremely methodical. Some passengers were reportedly murdered after failing to pay the smugglers or died from dehydration.
The crisis died out toward June, as the monsoon swept across the region, making travel by boats dangerous. Fears are now growing that as the monsoon dwindles to an end, the smugglers will go back to their occupation and a new crisis may begin.
“There is a serious risk of another humanitarian disaster unfolding at sea in late 2015,” writes Amnesty.
This is why, according to the humanitarian organization, Southeast Asian countries should work on a better response in case a new crisis erupts, providing refugees with material help and avoiding sending them back to Burma, where they are likely to be abused.
As for Burma, Amnesty merely prescribes an old medicine which nearly all humanitarian agencies operating in the area urge Naypyidaw to take: ending the discrimination against Rohingyas and integrating them into society.
Whether this will happen is very much in doubt. Authorities have always refused to acknowledge the problem and the issue has become a no-go zone for political leaders, including for Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), whose candidates have shown little willingness to address the problem – fearing, some argue, an electoral backlash from the country’s Buddhist majority.