Fleeing persecution in Myanmar, one Rohingya Muslim found himself subjected to further abuse at the hands of the Thai navy
By Himaya Quasem
Down a narrow, damp alley in the heart of the bustling tourist hotspot of Phuket sits a row of tin-roofed shacks. Hidden from view, they house Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar’s sectarian bloodshed.
Although Myanmar has been widely praised for adopting democratic reforms after years of isolation, a spate of ethnic violence has raised concerns about stability.
In April, Buddhist mobs were locked in deadly clashes with Muslims in the country’s central region. The carnage followed similar sectarian violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar last year.
Denied citizenship, some of the stateless Rohingya risk their lives to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries. Some end up in parts of Thailand including Phuket, 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 neighbours’ house burnt to the ground,” said the 47-year-old fisherman, recalling gruesome scenes he witnessed during the violence in Rakhine state. “People were being shot and stabbed. I saw a small child hacked down like a sapling.”
The conflict erupted in June last year amid reports that Rohingya men had murdered a young Rakhine Buddhist woman. As retaliatory attacks spiralled out of control, entire villages were razed, leaving an estimated 125,000 people homeless, mostly Rohingya.
A state of emergency was declared, which briefly stemmed the bloodshed, but a fresh wave of violence broke out in October.
Human rights groups have accused government security forces of tacitly supporting Rakhine Buddhist outrages against Rohingya, as part of a policy to drive them out of the country.
The bloodletting certainly prompted Ismail to leave. His fishing 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.”
He and other captives lived on mouthfuls of rice scooped from a single large bowl and slept in a cramped room next to the only toilet – a fetid pit.
But those were the least of Ismail’s worries. The smugglers demanded a $1,395 “fee” for entering Thailand.
“Some days, 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 let him contact a fellow Rohingya living in Phuket, who managed to raise some funds.
After 24 days in the camp, his ordeal ended and he was sent by bus to Phuket, where he now lives illegally.
Although Thailand has provided temporary protection to Rohingya, the government does not register them as refugees. Instead, it has a policy of “helping” boat people on to a third destination by providing them with food, water and assistance to continue their perilous journey.
The Thai Navy has been accused of abuses, like the ones Ismail describes. The Thai government has said it will look into the allegations. Back in Myanmar, tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya living in overcrowded 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.
There is little public support for the estimated 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar, said Chris Lewa, head of human rights organisation the Arakan Project, which specialises in the Rohingya minority group.
“One key reason is religion,” she added. “There’s a strong anti-Muslim discourse here.”
Dr Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, said the Rohingya – many of whom have lived in Myanmar for generations – should be granted citizenship. Such a move would bolster Myanmar’s democratic “legitimacy”, added Dr Ahmed, who researched the Rohingya for his book The Thistle and the Drone.
“Whether [the Burmese] can rise above issues of race and religion to be a united and democratic Burma,” said Ahmed, “will be their first and most important test.”