Denied freedom of movement and facing desperate conditions, Rohingya are turning to smugglers to escape Rakhine State, in journeys that often end in arrest and imprisonment.
By YE MON, EAINT THET SU and BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER
“THOUGH I was arrested, I want to try again to go to Malaysia,” said Ko Too Aung, a Rohingya who was detained in 2017 while being smuggled out of Rakhine State.
Too Aung, 24, was among six Rohingya arrested at a checkpoint in southern Rakhine’s Ann Township. They were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act because they had no proof of identity or citizenship.
Too Aung had left home without telling his parents, after a pwe za (broker) promised him a job in Malaysia and offered to arrange to get him there. It was a dream that landed Too Aung in prison and his family deeper in debt.
Too Aung, who lives at Aleh Ywar village in Rakhine’s north-central Kyauktaw Township, told Frontier that there was no work in his village but he was unable to leave legally because of heavy government-enforced restrictions on movement that apply to most Rohingya. He had hoped to earn a decent living after arriving in Malaysia, where about 100,000 Rohingya live as refugees in relative freedom and safety.
Despite the Malaysian government’s refusal to grant refugees the right to work or access to state education and benefits, many of them are able to do menial jobs in the informal sector and receive help in accessing housing and other forms of support from an array of charities and non-government organisations.
Too Aung said his broker was a Muslim man from Kyauktaw town, who had arranged for him and the other five Rohingya to be transported by car to Yangon.
Whether working as people smugglers, with the informed consent of those transported out of Rakhine, or engaging in more exploitative forms of smuggling that could qualify as human trafficking, these fixers are uniformly called “brokers” by local residents. This reflects the blurred line between consent and volition, on one side, and deception and exploitation, on the other, where desperate Muslim youth in Rakhine are concerned.
Had Too Aung’s journey not ended at an Ann police checkpoint, he would have been required to pay K2 million (US$1,370) to the broker once he reached Yangon. From there, the broker would have arranged road transport to Mawlamyine, the Mon State capital, where the plan was to take a boat up the Gyaing River in the direction of Myawaddy, a town on the Thai border opposite Mae Sot, where another broker would have demanded K3 million ($2,050) more in exchange for continuing his journey through Thailand to Malaysia.
“I didn’t expect to be arrested at the checkpoint,” he said. “I’ll make another attempt to go to Malaysia and I hope it will be successful.”
Too Aung’s story is typical of many young Muslims in Rakhine who, denied any legal routes to escape the poverty and discrimination they endure in their villages or camps for internally displaced persons, put their fate in the hands of smugglers in exchange for thousands of dollars.
Once in transit, they risk physical abuse from smugglers eager to extort more money from their parents, and also a high likelihood of arrest, after which they are speedily prosecuted and imprisoned – in most cases for two years – and portrayed in the Myanmar media as illegal immigrants for travelling within the country of their birth.
In an article titled “Refugees or illegal immigrants?”, published in the Burmese edition of the Myanmar Times on January 3, writer Nay Win Than argued, “these cases of people immigrating illegally and without authorisation into our country need to be handled strictly according to the existing laws.” Reflecting a common perception that the Muslim Rohingya represent a demographic threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, he asked, “How do we control these people who have over 30 people in their average households?”
Nay Win Than cited the arrest on December 15 of 173 Rohingya on board a vessel in the waters off southern Tanintharyi Region, who have since been returned to Rakhine without being prosecuted, alongside the more common arrests of Rohingya like Too Aung, who are caught while being smuggled in groups out of Rakhine through Ayeyarwady and Bago regions, and who are duly hit with criminal charges. In recent months, Myanmar’s courts have staged a series of mass prosecutions of such groups, along with some of the boat crew and bus drivers who transported them.
On November 29, a group of 96 Rohingya, including 25 children, were arrested after disembarking from a boat near the beach resort town of Chaung Thar in Ayeyarwady Region. Of this group, 93 are being tried at Pathein Township Court, including all but two of the children, for travelling without valid identity papers under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act.
Two earlier cases in Ayeyarwady Region were dealt with more summarily. On September 27, 30 people, including nine children, were arrested after disembarking at Nga Yoke Kaung beach in southwestern Ngapudaw Township.
Advocate Daw Thazin Myat Myat Win, who is representing those arrested near Chaung Thar, told Frontier that those arrested at Nga Yoke Kaung were not allowed to retain lawyers. They were sentenced just a week after their arrest, the 21 adults receiving two years’ imprisonment with hard labour under the 1949 law.
Eight of the children, who are in their teens, must also serve two years – the five girls at a vocational school and the three boys at a youth rehabilitation centre, both in Yangon Region (their confinement was covered in a November 8 Frontier article, “Rohingya children locked up in Yangon for travelling without ID”). The remaining child, aged six, is under the supervision of the Department of Social Welfare while his mother serves her two-year sentence. All will be returned to Rakhine after completing their sentences.
Lawyer Daw Chaw Su Htwe told Frontier on January 6 that the Pathein District Court had rejected an appeal against the sentences, lodged on the grounds that the speed of the trial had breached fair trial rights and that the judge had punitively opted for the maximum prison sentence under the law. A further appeal is before the regional High Court.
On November 20, 22 people were caught at Shwe Thaung Yan beach in Pathein Township. The eight children in the group were sentenced just three days later, to two years at the vocational and rehabilitation centres in Yangon. The adults underwent only a slightly longer trial, being sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on December 5. Chaw Su Htwe said an appeal against the sentences was before the district court.
A further case is underway at the Bago Township Court, where seven Rohingya who were arrested on the evening of November 8 at the Shwe Than Lwin toll gate in Hpa Yar Gyi, Bago Region, while travelling in a car are being prosecuted for a different immigration offence – that of entering Myanmar without a visa or immigration permit, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence under the 1947 Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act.
Police said those arrested were from Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine and intended to travel to Malaysia. Among the seven was a family of four – a mother and her children aged nine, seven and six, who were travelling to join the father. The judge barred Frontier from attending a December 12 hearing at the township court.
Meanwhile, two drivers from Yangon who were employed to transport the 30 Rohingya arrested at Nga Yoke Kaung are being prosecuted under section 367 of the Penal Code, which prescribes a maximum 10-year prison sentence for “kidnapping or abducting in order to subject [a] person to grievous hurt [or] slavery”. Another driver and a woman considered an intermediary are on the run. Also being tried for the same Penal Code offence are six boat crew and six bus drivers and assistants who were paid to transport the 96 Rohingya arrested near Chaung Thar.
Conspicuously absent from the law courts, though, are the brokers who arranged their journeys and the police and government officials in Rakhine who allowed them to pass out of a heavily policed state.
An officer at Ngapudaw Township Police Station, who asked not to be named, admitted to Frontier that the drivers being prosecuted in the Nga Yote Kaung case were low-level operatives in the smuggling network and that the ringleaders and even mid-level players remained at large. He said they had confessed to being paid K4 million to take the smuggled Rohingya to Yangon’s outer western Hlaing Tharyar Township.
“These guys are nothing, just a small part in the smuggling ring. But they knew the job at hand and who they had to take to Yangon. That’s why we charged them under the Penal Code, not the anti-trafficking law,” he said in reference to the 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law, which has not been applied in any of the cases involving Rohingya.
The arrests appear to have spooked some of those involved in trafficking Rohingya abroad, however. Daw Khin Win, a broker who recruits workers from villages in Mon and Kayin states to work informally in two factories across the Thai border in Mae Sot, told Frontier that a police officer whom she regularly bribed had advised her in the second week of December to temporarily halt her business because of increased scrutiny of illegal border crossings, which he said was prompted by higher-level concern over the smuggling of Rohingya.
Though smugglers have so far faced few consequences, the recent slew of arrests and prosecutions of their human cargo suggest that the racket for smuggling Rohingya out of Rakhine is not a well-oiled machine. It appears that any collusion between smugglers and government officials and police is largely confined to local townships in Rakhine, which Rohingya who pay the required sums have little trouble leaving, despite the formal restrictions on movement, but is less apparent further along the route or up the national chain of command.
U Mon Sut, the administrator for Yadanarpon village tract, which contains Too Aung’s village of Aleh Ywar, told Frontier that more than half of the young people from the village tract who had engaged brokers to travel to Malaysia had been caught along the way, but that the gradual exodus would continue – both because of the bleak conditions in Rakhine and the far better livelihood opportunities in Malaysia.
“The brokers’ networks are large and they have links with businesses owned by Rohingya [in Malaysia],” he said. As a result, many of the Rohingya successfully smuggled to Malaysia can expect to begin jobs right away, however badly paid and insecure by Malaysian standards.
Mon Sut said many Rohingya had left Rakhine after the Buddhist-Muslim riots in 2012. The violence displaced more than 140,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Rohingya Muslims. Most of them remain confined to heavily guarded camps that they are unable to leave without government permission, which is often difficult and expensive to obtain.
However, those Rohingya who remain in their villages also have their movements restricted by an extensive network of military and police checkpoints, where they are also liable to be abused and extorted, according to human rights groups.
Tens of thousands left Rakhine in overcrowded boats in the years up till 2015, when a crisis involving stranded boats and the discovery of mass graves on transit routes in Thailand forced Southeast Asian governments to crack down on regional smuggling and trafficking syndicates.
Since then, sporadic boat departures have taken place but, according to accounts heard by Frontier, most Rohingya wishing to escape from villages and camps in Rakhine are taken on a largely overland route that either leaves the state via the Rakhine Yoma mountain range, progressing through Magway and Bago regions, or begins with a boat trip down the coast to southern Rakhine or Ayeyarwady Region, where they are transferred to buses or cars. From Magway, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions, they travel past Yangon to Myawaddy, where their journey continues through Thailand to Malaysia.
Sources in Rakhine described a market rate of about K2 million to be smuggled to Yangon, where some are able to be absorbed into an unknown number of Rohingya living undocumented in the city, and K4-5 million to be taken to Malaysia, seemingly the most popular destination.
Rooted in statelessness
The number of people being smuggled is hard to gauge, and Frontier heard wildly varying estimates from sources on the ground. Some sources estimated that about half of those who attempt to leave Rakhine State manage to reach their destination, and the cases reported in the media are likely to represent just a fraction of the overall number who are smuggled each year.
The government, though, appears to have no collated figures. Police Colonel Myo Thu Soe, spokesperson for the Anti-Human Trafficking Police Task Force, told Frontier that because “this is not human trafficking, it is people smuggling”, questions should be directed to the Department of Immigration.
U Myo Thein Zaw, the acting administrator of Kyauktaw Township, where many known smuggling cases originate, told Frontier he did not know about people smuggling and also said any questions should be directed to the immigration department.
The immigration department in Nay Pyi Taw told Frontier to contact township branches of the department. Frontier phoned the department’s offices in Kyauktaw and Ann townships, who said they had no data to share.
Mon Sut said the numbers being smuggled had increased further following attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in October 2016, which invited reprisals by the Myanmar military that sent tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. A second, much larger series of coordinated attacks by the Rohingya militants prompted a more severe military crackdown, which led more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee across the border.
However, Mon Sut said that though Rohingya who remain in Rakhine fear being attacked by the Tatmadaw or Tatmadaw-armed Rakhine militias, the biggest motivation in turning to people smugglers is the immiseration of Rohingya communities under conditions where they face steep barriers to accessing livelihoods, healthcare and education. “Rohingya people need livelihood opportunities,” he said. “Otherwise, nothing will change.”
The restrictions imposed on Rohingya are rooted in their statelessness. The government does not consider the Rohingya among Myanmar’s native groups, who are automatically eligible for citizenship. Though older generations possessed identity cards that conferred citizenship rights, such as the three-fold National Registration Cards, which are now obsolete, today few Rohingya hold the Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (confusingly nicknamed “National Registration Cards”, or “NRCs”) or Naturalised Citizenship Scrutiny Cards that denote citizenship and allow unrestricted travel within Myanmar.
The government has made freedom of movement contingent on Rohingya applying for an intermediary document called the National Verification Card. However, many Rohingya have refused to apply because the process requires them to effectively identify as immigrants – a copy of the application form seen by Frontier asks for the “date and place of arrival in Myanmar” – and bars them from identifying as Rohingya.
The card is also no proof of citizenship, eligibility for which would still be assessed according to the 1982 Citizenship Law, which excludes Rohingya as a non-recognised Myanmar ethnic group. NVC holders must also receive government permission via an arduous (and reportedly expensive) bureaucratic process for each trip they wish to make outside of Rakhine.
However, possessing an NVC does appear to offer some form of protection if caught while undertaking unauthorised travel outside of Rakhine. One of the 96 Rohingya arrested near Chaung Thar in November was reportedly released from detention because she was found to have an NVC – though she had to return to Rakhine rather than continue her journey.
Too Aung and the five other Rohingya arrested at the Ann Township checkpoint in 2017 served their jail sentences at the prison in Kyaukphyu Township and on release were sent to the township’s Kyauktalone camp for internally displaced people, which hosts more than 1,000 Muslims from the Rohingya and Kaman ethnic groups. After a short stay at the camp, they were allowed to return to their villages.
Frontier visited the camp in December and met camp leader U Phyu Chay, who said that almost every week Rohingya who had been intercepted while taking broker-arranged trips were sent to the camp after serving their time in Kyaukphyu Prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross provided funds to enable them to return to their home villages, he said.
A group of six such people, originally from Maungdaw Township, arrived at the camp in early December. The group included U Shawfee Khan, 35, from Maungdaw’s Shwe Zar village, who told Frontier that, on release from prison, he and other Rohingya were presented with National Verification Cards.
At Kyauktalone camp, Frontier also met Ko Ali Husayn, 21, originally from Kyauktaw Township’s Zay village. Towards the start of their long journey to Malaysia, he and two friends had been abandoned by their brokers in the jungle in Ann Township, in the mountains that divide Rakhine and Magway Region. The two brokers had taken a more unconventional payment from the boys of two new motorbikes and K200,000 in cash, total.
He said he and his two friends had been unfortunate to encounter personnel from the township immigration department in Ann after they emerged from the jungle. “They took us to their office and asked us where we were going,” he said. After the three men were unable to produce identity documents, they were held at the township police station for a month and seven days before a hearing in the local court at which they were quickly sentenced to two years at Kyaukphyu Prison, Ali said.
To Ali’s knowledge, the brokers who had taken the motorbikes and their money were not arrested. He said he had no intention of making another attempt to travel to Malaysia. Ko Habed Ahmed, 19, who was arrested alongside Ali, said the same. “I will go back to my village and work as a farmer,” he told Frontier.
However, besides the many who are arrested and imprisoned, a huge toll is taken on the families they leave behind, who are not only separated from their loved ones but are frequently forced to sell vital assets, including farmland, in order to pay off the brokers.
In several accounts heard by Frontier, brokers had persuaded youths to undertake the journeys without their parents’ knowledge, leaving at night. Several days later, the parents received a phone call from the brokers, who told them they were holding their children at an isolated location along the route, and demanded payment via local intermediaries to continue the journey – or else they would abandon their children or beat them.
On December 19, Frontier spoke on the phone to a man named Kanful from Yadanarpon village tract in Kyauktaw.
In July, his daughter and granddaughter had left home without his knowledge, hoping to reach Malaysia via Thailand with the help of a broker. Not long after, he received a phone call from his daughter: the women, along with a youth from the same village, were being held in a forest in Magway. She said the brokers were demanding K1 million to continue the journey, and begged Kanful to pay up.
Over the following months, he received regular demands for more money: K3 million when they got to Myawaddy, another K4 million when they were on their way from Thailand to Malaysia. Once, a car driver called him, asking for an extra K1 million.
Each time, he agreed to pay, as did the family of the youth who had also been held in the forest in Magway. “A broker would come to the village to pick up the money. We had to mortgage all the land we had to give it to them,” he said. “Smugglers would abuse the children if we did not give them the money.”
Not long before speaking to Frontier, he had received word that his daughter and granddaughter had been detained by authorities in Thailand. Kanful is now deep in debt, and he has no idea where they are being held, or what will happen to them. “I’m so sad,” he said, “that they couldn’t make it to Malaysia.”
– Additional reporting by Kyaw Ye Lynn and Naw Betty Han