Muslim Leaders Urge Govt to Crack Down on Arakan Trafficking

By Lawi Weng 22 May 2015

RANGOON — Muslim community leaders in Arakan State have accused the Burmese government of failing to take action against human traffickers while neighboring countries crack down on the regional trade in humans, many of whom are Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

A spokesman for the government of Arakan State, where most of the trafficked victims creating the region’s most recent humanitarian crisis are from, said authorities haven’t acted because they had not received any specific complaints.

“The local authorities know who the traffickers are, but they do not arrest the people,” said Hla Maung, a local Muslim community leader in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim township in Arakan State, which is home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya. “How can they arrest these people? They are involved in this business, working with our Muslim brokers.

“We heard that Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have arrested people who were involved in human trafficking. But all the traffickers in Maungdaw are running free, no one has arrested them.”

He said local security forces guarding Burma’s border with Bangladesh were among the network of traffickers and facilitators filling boats with Rohingya that, until recently, sailed for Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations.

“Our people have to pay 50,000 [kyats, US$45 equivalent] for one person to the border guard force. Then, the border guards allow them passage to the sea. Then, they have to give 100,000 kyats per person to a broker,” said Hla Maung.

Vice President Sai Mauk Kham paid a visit this week to Arakan State, where recent international scrutiny has been directed as boatloads of Rohingya fleeing persecution in the western state have been found floating in the seas of Southeast Asia, abandoned by crews that feared being caught up in a regional crackdown on people smuggling.

State-run daily The Global New Light of Myanmar said the vice president “urged local authorities to do their utmost to prevent human trafficking and transnational crimes in the state” and “discussed efforts to stop human trafficking in Myanmar’s sea territories and along the Rakhine [Arakan] coast” with the head of the Danyawady Naval Region Command headquarters.

Asked about Hla Maung’s claims of government inaction, Hla Thein, a spokesperson for the Arakan State government, said authorities had received no specific complaints to act upon.

“There is no one from the Bengali side who has come to complain to us that they were trafficked, nor asked us to arrest those traffickers or brokers,” he said, using a term for Rohingya reflecting the government’s position that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “For our part, we cannot go and arrest traffickers unless the victims come to complain about it to us first.”

There are eight Rohingya camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Sittwe, Hla Thein said, adding that his government meets weekly with Muslim community leaders who take care of the camps and no one had lodged any complaints about trafficking cases.

According to the Ministry of Information, the Burma Navy on Thursday discovered a boat carrying about 200 people four miles off the coast of Maungdaw. Those on board were turned over to authorities in Maungdaw, the ministry said, identifying them as Bangladeshis. The ministry did not indicate what would happen to the trafficking victims, but on Tuesday the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 13 Bangladesh nationals were found at a seaside village in Maungdaw and were transferred to Bangladeshi immigration authorities.

Hundreds of Rohingya, along with Bangladeshis escaping poverty in their home country, have washed up on the shores of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in recent weeks. Those countries initially refused to accept them as refugees but later agreed to take them, provided that the international community assisted to eventually resettle them elsewhere. While potentially thousands remain stranded at sea with dwindling food and water supplies, the urgency of the crisis has prompted an international outcry.

Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in state media on Wednesday that it “shares concerns expressed by the international community.”

“[Burma] stands ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea,” the statement said, adding that measures were being taken to prevent human smuggling and illegal migration.

On Thursday, a high-level US delegation on a three-nation Southeast Asia tour met with President Thein Sein and senior members of his cabinet in Naypyidaw to discuss “humanitarian assistance for illegal migrants” and “combating people smuggling and human trafficking, [and] the situation in Rakhine State,” among other issues, according to The Global New Light of Myanmar.

Aung Win, another Muslim community leader from Sittwe who is a Rohingya rights activist, corroborated an earlier Reuters report that boats full of Rohingya remained moored off the Arakan coast, with traffickers offering them a return to shore—for a price.

“They are asking one person for between 100,000 to 300,000 kyats,” Aung Win said. “Refugees are people who do not have money. Where they will get this money for their release? These people [traffickers] are very brutal.”

He said rather than protecting those within Burma’s sovereign borders, the government appeared happy to allow the Rohingya exodus by boat.

At issue in Arakan State, for years, has been the government’s refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship. Violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2012 displaced more than 140,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Rohingya who remain confined to IDP camps, where a lack of access to basic government services has driven tens of thousands to board rickety boats seeking refuge elsewhere.

“If we have to think about our life, it is very sad because we were born here long ago, many generations [ago],” Hla Maung said. “But, they do not recognize us as from this country.”

The dire situation in the seas of Southeast Asia appeared to improve on Wednesday, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand agreeing to temporarily take in what is believed to be thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi “boat people” who have made landfall on their soil or have been abandoned at sea.

Burma’s Foreign Ministry has agreed to attend a conference on May 29 in Bangkok, called hastily last week to discuss a regional response to the crisis.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday said the United States would help to resettle some of the refugees, but Aung Win said the fundamental problems in Arakan State that were driving the Rohingya exodus remained: poor conditions in camps for displaced people, a lack of jobs and state-sponsored discrimination.

“The situation will get more complicated if the government does not solve the problems of these people,” said Aung Win.