In Burma, a Rising Exodus but No Trafficking Arrests

By Aubrey Belford 10 July 2015

NYAUNG CHAUNG, Arakan State — The bamboo-and-thatch village of Nyaung Chaung in Burma’s Arakan State is typical of the places from which Rohingya Muslims flee. The fields don’t provide a living, locals say. Jobs are scarce. Daily life is a series of humiliations from Burma’s government, which officially considers them intruders and denies them citizenship.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Arakan State since the start of the year, joining perilous journeys on the boats of human traffickers through the Bay of Bengal.

But local officials say no one has been arrested for trafficking in the Burma state that supplies the vast majority of victims to this brutal trade.

“There have been no trafficking cases in Rakhine [Arakan] State so far [this year]. There is a police unit to track down human traffickers, so it’s very rare in this area,” Hla Thein, the Arakan State Attorney General, told Reuters.

Local Middlemen

Villagers give a very different account, linking local middlemen to a regional network that has been the subject of arrests abroad.

They say the link is a local man, Soe Naing—widely known as Anwar. His arrest in southern Thailand on April 28 led to the discovery of dozens of migrant graves along the Thailand-Malaysia border.

For years, Rohingya have fled poverty and persecution in Arakan State, boarding boats to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond to seek work and asylum. But clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 saw an explosion in the exodus, amid violence that killed hundreds and displaced more than 140,000.

As more than 100,000 fled, traffickers began holding migrants for ransom in jungle camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Untold numbers died on the journey.

In early May, Thailand began a sweeping crackdown on the trade after discovering scores of graves in abandoned trafficking camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border.

‘Back and Forth’

Since the crackdown, Anwar’s family home—a rambling structure of bamboo and corrugated iron, slathered in sky blue paint—has stood empty behind a metal fence.

Local police have not yet paid a visit.

Police Lieutenant San Min, the head of the anti-human trafficking unit in Maungdaw Township, whose office is a 10-minute drive away, told Reuters: “As far as I know, there hasn’t been action against any human traffickers here.”

The reason for that may be that police have not regarded Rohingya fleeing the country as being trafficked, said Police Lt. Col. Thet Naung, the national head of the police Anti-Human Trafficking Team.

They “were just going back and forth between regional countries, including Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar,” he told Reuters.

He said Thai police had requested assistance in taking DNA samples from Rohingya in Arakan State, as part of their efforts to investigate alleged murders inside Thai camps, including those linked to Anwar.

Burmese authorities are ready to cooperate with the request, Thet Naung said.