Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ordeal at Sea Described by Rohingya Survivors

The Irrawaddy News

SABANG, Indonesia (AP) —The bearded farmer wept in his hospital bed as he recounted a harrowing six-month journey that brought him from the isolated country of Burma to this remote island in the Indian Ocean.

Nur Mohammad, a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority group, said he was forced to work for the Burmese army, after being detained and tortured without charge. When he fled that country, he said he was exploited by Bangladeshi human traffickers, beaten by Thai officials and then forced out to sea in an overcrowded boat that nearly sank off Indonesia's coast.

And his ordeal is not over.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh perform evening prayers at an Indonesian Navy base where they are being held after having been rescued at sea on Sabang Island off the Coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

The 37-year-old Muslim, who is being treated for internal bleeding and trauma, faces possible deportation by the very people who plucked him from the water.

"I would rather die here," Mohammad told The Associated Press, describing the abuse in Burma against the Rohingya, who for generations have been denied citizenship and reportedly face torture, religious persecution and forced labor under the ruling junta.

"If I'm sent back, I am sure authorities will kill me."

The stateless Muslim ethnic group, which is not recognized by the military regime, numbers about 800,000 in Burma. Their plight gained international attention after several boats carrying around 1,000 migrants were intercepted last month by the Thai navy. Human rights groups allege Thai officers detained and beat them before forcing them back to sea in vessels with no engines and little food or water.

Survivors recounted how four migrants were tossed overboard before the rest were forced at gunpoint onto a makeshift barge in the middle of the ocean, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Bangkok-based advocacy group Arakan Project.

Hundreds are missing and feared drowned, according to human rights groups; others have landed on remote corners of Indonesia and India, where they are being kept well away from the media, making it difficult to corroborate their stories.

Authorities in both Thailand and Burma have denied wrongdoing.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh stand outside their shelter at an Indonesian Navy base. (Photo: AP)

In the meantime, the harrowing accounts of victims like Mohammad continue to trickle in from hospital beds and jail cells.

Mohammad said by the time his boat reached Thailand's southern coast on December 26—after working for months on fishing vessels in Bangladesh—he and other fellow Rohingya had been at sea for four days and nights.

They were dehydrated and hungry, he said, but given almost no food or water when they reached land.

Authorities took the men to a hillside prison overseeing the Thai city of Ranong, he said, where they were lined up and stripped down to the waist. One by one, they were pummeled and taunted, with some officers scoffing at them for being Muslim and threatening to burn their traditional beards, he said.

"They tied me and beat me with sticks and kicked me with their boots until I was vomiting blood. They only stopped because I was about to die," said Mohammad. A doctor who treated him at an Indonesian navy base on Sabang island told the AP the wounds appeared to have been caused by a blunt object.

Soon after, he said, the migrants were crammed back into their boats and sent adrift in stormy seas.

Brad Adams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the story of the Rohingya has been made all the more tragic by the consistent lack of compassion shown by some regional governments, which appear to have ignored the suffering of the ethnic minorities or played a direct part in it.

Thai authorities insist repeatedly that they do not forcibly evict migrants but only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, facing growing criticism from rights groups, said last week the government would investigate claims of abuse. The Foreign Ministry also said it would convene a meeting with its neighbors to find a solution to the growing illegal migrant problem.

On Wednesday, a Thai court convicted more than 60 migrants on the same charge, raising the prospect that they could be kicked out. The men alleged they were abused by Burmese navy officials.

A spokesman for Burma’s military government was not available for comment.

The ruling junta does not officially recognize the existence of a separate Rohingya group in the country's western areas and sometimes refers to them as "Bangladeshis."

Restrictive citizenship laws enacted in 1982 make many Muslims living in the area stateless; "'Rohingyas' do not exist in the Union of Burma and are not one of Burma's indigenous national races," the government told the UN Human Rights Council last year.

At the same time, it rejected as untrue "allegations of discrimination and harassment" toward Muslim refugees returned from Bangladesh—meaning the Rohingya.

In addition to the Rohingya, the military regime has brutally repressed a number of groups and millions have risked their lives fleeing the country.

The Rohingya, who are believed to descend from 7th century Arab settlers whose state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784, face religious persecution because they are Muslims in a Buddhist-majority country. Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report they faced forced relocation, land seizures, and denial of citizenship and identity papers, among other things.

The State Department agreed, saying they "experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination."

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have ended up in neighboring Bangladesh—some getting illegal jobs and others living in crowded, squalid refugee camps—after borrowing huge sums of money from family and friends to pay smugglers.

Others have settled in impoverished communities in Malaysia and Thailand, which depend on migrant labor; even more have braved the sea to go as far as the Middle East.

"It is a horrible humanitarian crisis unfolding, the fairly large numbers of people leaving in these boats, either drowning at sea or finding themselves in exploitative, abuse situations on arrival," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

Like other stateless people, the Rohingya are especially vulnerable to human trafficking because they provide cheap labor and are not protected by the law, he said.

"The issue of people in poor countries trying to reach richer ones is not going to stop," he said. "It's going to become more serious and it needs to be addressed, not just regionally, but globally."

In describing his persecution in Burma, Mohammad said his village was placed under a curfew and the Rohingya were unable to marry and often had their land confiscated.

He said he was forced to work as a laborer for the army after being detained and tortured without charge.

He decided to cross the border illegally into Bangladesh, where he worked as a fisherman until he was able to earn enough money to pay for a boat to Malaysia—around $430. He and others set off in their rickety wooden boats on Dec. 16 with a captain who seemed not to know the way.

The men were picked up and beaten by the Burmese navy who held them for two days, he said.

When they reached Thailand, they were again taken into custody and pummeled before being cast adrift in a boat that had been stripped of its engine and emptied of fuel, Mohammad said.

"The boat was leaking badly," he said. "The water started rising inside. Finally, it was a foot deep and we started to sink. We prayed to Allah, we asked him to save us."

A fishing boat spotted them off Indonesia's westernmost coast and alerted the navy, which brought 193 men, all but 17 of them Rohingya, to shore on Jan. 7 as it was on the verge of sinking.

Many were too weak to stand and were hospitalized.

Now the Indonesian government is threatening to send them back to where they came from.

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