Government Behind Harsh Crackdown on Critical Speech
From Human Rights Watch
(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s human rights situation markedly deteriorated in 2016, with increased arrests of government critics, expanded restrictions on peaceful assembly, and continued impunity for police abuses, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017.
In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.
“The Malaysian government has responded to corruption allegations by throwing respect for rights out the window,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “By bringing a slew of prosecutions against those expressing dissenting views or peacefully protesting, the government is seriously undermining democratic institutions and the rights of all Malaysian citizens.”
Throughout 2016, Malaysian authorities used the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) and the Sedition Act to arrest those criticizing the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak, commenting on the government’s handling of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, or making comments on social media deemed “insulting” to Najib or to Malaysia’s royalty.
The government also used the CMA to suspend newspapers and block websites reporting on the 1MDB scandal, and has repeatedly arrested and prosecuted those involved in peaceful protests. In November, the authorities raided the offices of online news portal Malaysiakini and subsequently charged its chief executive officer, Premesh Chandran, and editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, with violating the CMA by uploading video of a press conference during which a former member of the ruling coalition called for the resignation of the attorney general.
The Malaysian government has also used the draconian Official Secrets Act to shield the Auditor General’s report on the 1MDB scandal – a matter of great public interest in Malaysia – from public view. In November, Rafizi Ramli, the vice president of opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was sentenced to 18 months in prison under the act for allegedly disclosing information from that report.
Civil society groups organized under the Bersih (meaning “clean” in Malay language) coalition continued to demand clean and fair elections in 2018 when the next national poll must take place by, and other human rights and governance reforms. These groups mounted a major public rally, Bersih 5, on November 19. The day before the protest, authorities detained Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah, then detained her under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, a draconian anti-terrorism law that permits detention without charge.
In August, the sweeping National Security Council law came into force, giving the prime minister the authority to declare security areas within which restraints on police power are suspended. Police torture of suspects in custody and excessive use of force remained serious problems, as did lack of accountability for such offenses. More than a thousand people are estimated to be on death row for various crimes and, although the Malaysian government has repeatedly said that it is considering amending the law to charge the mandatory death penalty provisions, it has yet to do so.
More than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom come from Burma, have no legal status in Malaysia and are unable to work, travel, or enroll in government schools. The lack of status leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation.
“The downward slide in rights protections that started after the 2013 election accelerated during the past year as the number of tough questions increased about Prime Minister Najib’s alleged involvement in 1MDB scandal,” said Robertson. “The Malaysian government should step back from its repressive course, bring its laws into line with international standards, and start respecting fully the rights of everyone in Malaysia.”
Former opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is in prison after he was convicted of sodomising his former aide. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, February 9, 2016. US President Barack Obama must urge Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Najib Razak to release Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from prison and drop all politically motivated charges, says a global human rights body ahead of the US-Asean Summit.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Najib’s invitation to the summit, which will be held in the US in five days, had provoked outrage among Malaysian activists.
“Obama should not conduct business as usual at the US-Asean summit with Najib,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release to commemorate the first anniversary of Anwar’s imprisonment.
“It would be a betrayal of the people of Malaysia if Obama does not publicly call for Anwar’s release, and the dismissal of politically motivated charges for sedition and other crimes that so many activists in Malaysia face today.” HRW said Putrajaya should “unconditionally release” Anwar because his incarceration was on “politically motivated charges”. Robertson said confidence in the Malaysian justice system eroded each day the former opposition leader was kept behind bars.
“Anwar’s conviction and imprisonment removed a major political threat to the government of Najib,” said Robertson. HRW said Putrajaya should also ensure the former opposition leader had access to appropriate medical services while imprisoned and that it facilitated necessary overseas travel to treat his ailments.
The Federal Court last year upheld a Court of Appeal verdict that Anwar was guilty of sodomising his aide, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, and sentenced him to five years in prison. The US had said it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the outcome of the trial. – February 9, 2016.
Major General Paween has the reputation of being an honest cop
Photo by phuketwan.com/file
PHUKET: The resignation of a senior human trafficking investigator today is likely to provoke international questioning about whether Thailand intends to end the evil trade in people or cover it up all over again.
Major General Paween Pongsirin said the five-month police probe was wound up and his investigation unit disbanded with more arrests yet to be made and trafficking networks unbroken.
The main reason he quit today is because acceptance of his new appointment as deputy commander of Yala province in Thailand’s Deep South would expose him to revenge by trafficking network members who are still free.
Scores of arrests have been made since May by Major General Paween’s team – including Army and Navy Officers, police and powerful local politicians.
But Major General Paween said: ”We were only given five months. The job is not finished yet.”
He alleges there are still senior people in uniform who have not been brought to book for their roles in the trade in people that flourished for years through Thailand until May, when the mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were discovered in secret jungle camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.
Why Thailand’s probe into human trafficking was wound up with the chief investigator insisting arrests still had to be made is a question the Prime Minister and other senior government officials are likely to be asked many times before US State Department officials consider whether to lift the country from Tier 3 of its Trafficking in Persons ranking, the lowest level, next year.
With the disbanding of the trafficking investigation unit, the pregnant wife of one key Rohingya witness against several important suspects has been left to fend for herself without any protection or aid.
Major General Paween said today that ending human trafficking in Thailand was made a priority by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha: ”I worked hard for the benefit of the country and I arrested some military officers and their [alleged] networks.”
Prayuth Chan Ocha. AP photo
Yala is a province where Major General Paween knows traffickers are still free so he has decided to reject his new appointment and resign instead after a long career as a highly-regarded honest policeman.
”This is very sad but I have no choice,” he said. ”My first priority is to protect my life and the lives of my family.”
For years, human trafficking of stateless Rohingya from Myanmar (Burma) and later neighboring Bangladeshis grew into a multi-billion baht industry through Thailand with very few arrests and huge amounts of money changing hands.
Onlookers fear that with so many senior people in the networks still free, the hideous process is likely to resume at any moment – but with greater effort going into covering it up.
Thailand’s grassroots effort to educate local officials and stop human trafficking from now on has not been matched by a desire to expose and arrest all those in uniform who were previously part of the trade in people.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch, said: ”Thailand’s serious human trafficking problem is further from being solved today with the loss of Major General Paween, who did an exemplary job in investigating the human trafficking gangs involved in perpetuating the misery of the Rohingya, and prosecuting anyone involved, no matter how high their rank or important their connections.
”Transferring efficient and highly committed police in a punitive way, and leaving witnesses unprotected is precisely the way that Thailand elites have historically allowed human rights related prosecutions to unravel.
”The US government and the international community need to be asking some hard questions about this case to those in charge of .
”Will these prosecutions of influential persons in the Rohingya trafficking cases go the same way that so many other trafficking prosecutions have gone in the past – let the accused play for time, look the other way as witnesses are intimidated or bought off, and then throw hands up in the air and look blameless when the prosecution cases implode at the court, allowing traffickers to walk free?
”It’s time for action to be taken now to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Major General Paween, a career-long police officer now aged 57, will leave the force in 30 days unless authorities rescind the Yala appointment or hasten his resignation.
Thousands more Rohingya are expected to take to the sea in search of sanctuary after tomorrow’s national election in Myanmar.
Declaration of Interest
Puketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian have to wait until November 30 for the possibility of a court verdict appeal by the Phuket Prosecutor’s office to end. On September 1 a judge dismissed all criminal defamation and computer crimes charges against the reporters.
The case was brought by the Royal Thai Navy over Rohingya trafficking allegations originally published by Reuters news agency.
LISTEN The Rohingya Solution
A tragedy almost beyond words has been unfolding in Thailand, where a human smuggling network is thriving with the full knowledge of some corrupt law enforcement officers. Alan Morison ofPhuketwan talks to Australia’s AM program. http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2015/s4231108.htm
HANOI — Vietnam has freed a high-profile blogger who has traveled to the United States, which is pressing for more such dissidents to be released.
“We welcome the decision by Vietnamese authorities to release Ta Phong Tan who decided to travel to the United States after her release from prison,” said Terry White, a US Embassy public affairs officer.
Ta Phong Tan
“We remain deeply concerned for all persons imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms and call on the government to release unconditionally all these prisoners and allow all Vietnamese to express their political views without fear of retribution,” he said.
Tan, 47, a former policewoman, was arrested in 2011 for writing about human rights and corruption on her blog and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda in a trial that also convicted fellow blogger Nguyen Van Hai, better known as Dieu Cay.
Nguyen Van Hai,
Over the past two years, several high-profile dissidents have been released and sent into exile in the United States, including Dieu Cay, who was released last October. His case had been mentioned by President Barack Obama.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Tan’s release, but said no one should have been jailed for peacefully expressing their views.
“This release continues Vietnam’s cynical practice of releasing high-profile dissidents from prison directly into forced exile, with immediate departure from the country being the price of their freedom,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
US officials have said that Vietnam needs to improve its human rights record if it wants to expand economic, trade and military ties with the United States.
Hanoi says that no one is imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing their views, and that only law breakers are punished.
Phuketwan journalist Chutima Sidasathian and editor Alan Morison speak to reporters in Phuket, Thailand before appearing in court.
Bangkok (CNN) Proceedings have ended in the controversial trial of two Thailand-based journalists facing criminal defamation charges for reporting on the alleged involvement of Thai naval forces in human trafficking.
The charges against Alan Morison, the 67-year-old Australian editor of independent Thai news website Phuketwan, and reporter Chutima Sidasathian, a Thai citizen, could earn them seven years in jail — two years on criminal defamation charges and five years for breaching the Computer Crimes Act.
The judge’s verdict in the case, heard in a Phuket court, will be delivered on September 1.
The charges relate to a Phuketwan article published in July 2013.
The story included a 41-word paragraph from a Reuters investigative article alleging that “Thai naval forces” had profited from involvement in the smuggling of ethnic Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar.
No-one from Reuters, which won a Pulitzer Prize for the series of reports on Rohingya that the article featured in, was charged over the original story.
“We are confident,” that the court will vindicate them, Morison told CNN at the end of Thursday’s hearing.
He said the Royal Thai Navy should have responded to the allegations by launching an investigation inside its own organization, rather than pursuing a case against journalists.
‘Threat to democratic society’
The case has been slammed by press freedom organizations and human rights groups, including the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Eight international rights groups signed an open letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha calling on him to drop the charges, claiming that the case constituted a threat to the “bedrock of Thailand’s democratic society.”
“The fact that these two journalists are even on trial is a scathing indictment of the Thai government’s unwillingness to respect media freedom and clear indicator of how far and fast the environment for free expression has deteriorated under military rule,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson said in a statement.
Article ‘in public interest’
Chutima told CNN that she and Morison had testified in court on Wednesday, defending the use of the paragraph that had prompted the charges.
“We explained to them that the term ‘Thai naval forces’ doesn’t mean the Royal Thai Navy, but it means any forces with capability or resources to work in water or at sea,” she said.
An English linguistic expert gave further evidence for the defense in support of their argument, she said Thursday.
A second witness, with expertise on the Computer Crimes Act, also testified in their defense Thursday, arguing that the law was intended to prevent crimes such as hacking or credit card skimming, but had been abused.
Chutima told the court that, in writing the article, she and Morison had been simply doing their jobs and acting in the public interest.
A statement on the website says: “Our reporting on vital matters about Phuket and Thailand will halt for the trial of two journalists on July 14-16 and may not resume. Phuketwan’s future is uncertain because of a highly controversial criminal defamation action.”
In May, dozens of graves and a number of secret detention camps were found in trafficking hotspots around the Thai-Malaysian border.
The ensuring Thai crackdown saw trafficking networks abandon their human cargo at sea, leaving thousands of vulnerable migrants on rickety wooden boats ping-ponging between different countries as they attempted to make landfall.
The crackdown led to dozens of arrests, including of a senior army officer in the region, Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan, on human trafficking charges.
Thailand’s military junta, which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup last year, has introduced strict controls on media, amid a clampdown on civil liberties.
Prayuth has repeatedly griped publicly about journalists, and was slammed for an offhand comment at a press conference in March that he would “probably just execute” any reporters who stepped out of line.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha listens to a question from a journalist after a ceremony to mark the National Anti Human Trafficking Day at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, June 5, 2015.
Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia-Pacific desk for Reporters Without Borders, called on the Thai government “to end their policy of harassing the media.”
“The trial of these two journalists, who just did their job as news providers with a great deal of professionalism, poses a great danger to all those independent voices in Thailand who want to use their freedom of expression and information,” he said in a statement.
BANGKOK: The United Nations Human Rights Office for South-East Asia (OHCHR) is highly concerned with the ongoing trials of two Phuketwan journalists for reporting on smuggling ofRohingya and the alleged involvement of the Royal Thai Navy in Southern Thailand.
From 14 to 16 July, Mr. Alan Morison and Ms. Chutima Sidasathian will be standing trial at the Phuket Provincial Court for publishing an article which quoted an investigative report by Reuters on the smuggling of Rohingya asylum seekers. The charges were filed by the Royal Thai Navy.
The article was published in Phuketwan, a small English-language newspaper based in Phuket, on 17 July 2013.
The two journalists face charges of criminal defamation and violation of the Computer Crime Act. If convicted, Mr. Morison and Ms Sidassathian face up to five years in prison.
Phuketwan has been a leading source of information on the plight of Rohingya asylum seekers since 2008.
Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot (L) listens as a Rohingya trafficking victim leads a police unit to a camp where he was detained in Satun, southern Thailand in this March 27, 2014 file photo.
REUTERS/ANDREW RC MARSHALL/FILES
International human rights standards uphold the right of journalists and others to disseminate information that is of legitimate public interest.
In April 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression raised concern that there have been increasing arrests and prosecutions under the Computer Crime Act and called for an end to criminalisation of dissenting opinions.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thailand has the obligation to uphold the right to freedom of expression (article 19).
Mass graves have been found in camps run by traffickers in Thailand, Malaysia and other nations
The UN Human Rights Committee has outlined that ”[s]tates parties should consider the decriminalisation of defamation” and ”the application of criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty”.
OHCHR urges the Thai authorities to drop the charges against the two journalists.
Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest.
THE Regional Office for South-East Asia in Bangkok represents the High Commissioner for Human Rights within South East Asia. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the United Nations and heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which spearheads the United Nations’ human rights efforts .
Statement attributable to Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch on the trial of Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian in Thailand on July 14-16 – in Phuket Provincial Court.
”The fact that these two journalists are even on trial is a scathing indictment of the Thai government’s unwillingness to respect media freedom and clear indicator of how far and fast the environment for free expression has deteriorated under military rule. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth should have ordered the Navy to stand down and withdraw the charges – but instead he effectively endorsed their effort to gag media critics, and in doing so, administered another body blow to what little remains of Thailand’s international rights reputation. The real message of this trial to Thailand’s journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching – but fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the Navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles. They deserve the international community’s unstinting support. They certainly have Human Rights Watch’s support.”
Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia’s Aceh Province on May 11, 2015.REUTERS/Roni Bintang
As the trade in human beings becomes more and more profitable, the BBC’s Jonathan Head discovers that entire communities in Thailand are helping the traffickers.
Earlier this month, I accompanied a group of Thai volunteers through the steamy mangrove forest of an island on the Andaman coast. They were following up hazy reports of unmarked graves on the island; it was known to have been used by traffickers to hold large groups of migrants while they waited for transport south towards the Malaysian border.
They dug down deep into the waterlogged soil, before the first fragments of bone appeared. Then they pulled at a soggy wet cloth. It was a dress. Inside were the yellowing bones of a woman. Who she was, or how she died, we still do not know. But it is almost certain she was one of the migrants.
She must have endured a gruelling sea journey to reach this desolate spot. Had she lived, the ordeal ahead of her, on her route to a better life in Malaysia, might have been even worse.
The human trade
The migrants found in Takua Pa last October were in deep distress
Last October, I was in almost exactly the same area. We had dashed down from Bangkok on news that a group of migrants had been rescued by officials in the district of Takua Pa. In the community hall we found 81 men in acute distress, weeping and praying.
Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing here from mistreatment in Myanmar for several years – but this time the men were not Rohingyas. They were Bangladeshis. And some of them told us they had been forced on to the boats that transported them here.
District chief Manit Pianthong took us back to where he had found them, in the jungle not far from the site of the woman’s grave. They had been starved and beaten over a period of several days.
Manit told us his district had long been used by human traffickers to transfer migrants from boats to trucks. He wanted to stamp it out. But he was getting little help from the central government, or from local law enforcement.
Volunteers help exhume migrant graves, recovering bones from the forest ground
Over several days, I watched him dealing with angry phone calls from government officials and police, criticising him for talking to the media, and demanding that he send the Bangladeshis to immigration detention centres. It was an open secret that many of the migrants sent there were simply sold back to the traffickers.
Manit used volunteers from his own staff to go out searching for the holding camps. He put a 24-hour checkpoint on the main road route south to stop the truckloads of migrants. He put the word out among fishing communities to alert him if they spotted any boats coming in.
The arrival of growing numbers of Bangladeshis, together with the Rohingyas, showed that the trade in humans was expanding. And no wonder. It was immensely profitable.
Rohingya Muslims mainly live in Myanmar, where they have faced decades of persecution.
Rights groups say migrants feel they have “no choice” but to leave, paying people smugglers to help them.
The UN estimates more than 120,000 Rohingyas have fled in the past three years.
Traffickers usually take the migrants by sea to Thailand then overland to Malaysia.
But Thailand recently began cracking down on the migrant routes, meaning traffickers are using sea routes instead.
The humidity under the rubber trees was suffocating. A young man in a bright orange shirt moved quickly ahead of me, as I puffed uphill. There was no discernible path. Then he stopped and began talking quickly.
Six months earlier he had been living here, he said, with 600 others. He lay down among the fallen leaves and insects to show where they slept, without shelter. They took us to a tent over here, he gestured, and made us phone our parents to demand money. If they could not pay, we were beaten. And over there, he pointed, that is where we saw women being raped. People died, and they sent in trucks to take away the bodies.
This was the business model. The Thai trafficking networks bought the migrants by the boatload. The price for a cargo of 300 people, we were told by several sources including Thai police, was $20,000 (£13,000; €18,000) or more. Then the migrants were held in the jungle until their families paid a ransom, usually $2,000 – $3,000 per person, a huge sum for people usually doing low-end jobs in Malaysia.
A migrant shows where he slept among the fallen leaves and insects
So how were the traffickers able to conduct this business in the midst of Thai villagers? The camp I saw was just 30 minutes drive from the city of Hat Yai. They involved the local community.
Boy, a young Thai Muslim man from a village near the camp, explained how his community was sucked into the trafficking business. A few years back, he said, he had been out hunting birds when he came across migrants, including children, being beaten in the camp. After that he discreetly started offering shelter to migrants who escaped.
“The whole community is involved”, he said. “It’s because of the money. The traffickers hire everyone. They hire people to keep watch on the camps, to carry food for the Rohingyas. They go round all the houses here, hiring people.” With the price of rubber, their main crop, plunging, it was a tempting alternative.
He told me the young men were also offered drugs as an inducement. So if the migrants escaped – there were no fences – they were likely to be caught, and risk violent punishment by the camp guards.
None of this would have been possible, though, without official connivance. Just how high the involvement went is still unclear. But it must have been very high.
Towards the end of last year, I was given a briefing by a senior police officer who knows a lot about the human trade. He told me of at least one huge camp, right on the border with Malaysia, where 1,000 people could be held.
Why did he not shut it down, I asked. He laughed. “You know the border is a military zone”, he said. “As a police officer I can do nothing there without military approval.”
He had never got that approval. Why did he not go to General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led last year’s coup, and who had pledged to end trafficking? If I try that, he said, the traffickers will be told even before I see him, and they will quickly move the camp. All he could do, he said, was to observe.
Six months later, the first mass grave, containing 26 bodies, was found in the same camp that he had been impotently watching.
It became difficult to work out who was involved, and who was not.
One local police chief told us of his efforts to stop the trade. He offered us the use of his boat to go and look for more. A day later a military unit who had taken us out on patrol with them told us the same police chief was deeply implicated in trafficking.
But then their own commitment suddenly looked uncertain when they refused to land us, as promised, in villages we were passing where migrants were believed to have been hidden.
One officer showed us several sheets of paper detailing his investigations into prominent business figures in Ranong, a province well-known for its trafficking links.
He had names, phone numbers, times of calls, evidence of a well-connected network. This information, he said, had been passed on to the central government. The clear implication was that the government was doing nothing. That officer has now been transferred.
“Look, everybody knew those camps were there,” says Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. “It wasn’t just the villagers in the vicinity who were working with the camps and serving as lookouts.”
“These are areas at the Thai-Malaysia border which are militarised. So you had police and military in those areas. There is no way somebody would be able to operate camps of that size without somebody signing off in exchange for a ‘packet'”.
Will it stop?
I stood before a large crowd of Rohingyas, in another local government hall, two days after they had been intercepted. Their guards had been locked up in the police cell next door, and the police chief was questioning them and going through their mobile phones in an effort to find out who their bosses were.
I had a question for the Rohingyas. How many of them were worried about whether their families could pay the ransoms the brokers would demand? Almost every one of them raised his hand.
“We don’t want to come here”, said Mohammad, a teacher from Rathedaung, in Rakhine State. “We don’t want to leave our motherland. But we don’t have anywhere to escape with our lives. The Myanmar government is so bad. They beat us, they shoot us”.
But Mohammad had little idea what awaited him in the camps, if he escaped, and ended up back in the hands of the traffickers.
Later, many of his group did just that, a military source told us, after they had been transferred to the immigration detention centre in Ranong. Possibly they were sold back to the traffickers, as many had been before them. They were all desperate to reach Malaysia, where there were jobs, families, and hope of a better life.
Until their treatment by the Burmese government improves, Rohingyas will continue to flee.
But the Bangladeshis have a choice. Only some of them were forced onto the boats. Most were persuaded to board them, by rosy talk of well-paid jobs. Once they understood the brutal reality of the trade, many of them wanted to go home.
The Thai ransom business had become so lucrative that the traffickers have extended their operations into Bangladesh, where there is already a well-established network of labour brokers. If the networks are broken, the numbers boarding rickety boats will probably fall sharply.
For months we talked to military and police officers who seemed genuine in their wish to stop trafficking. They said they were making progress, but they never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest, or even question, powerful figures in the provinces Ranong, Satun and Songkhla who were believed to be running the business. What seemed to be missing was political will.
It was the discovery of the first mass grave that shocked the government into action.
The many appalling tales of brutalities we had heard, from people held in the camps, were vindicated by the bones exhumed from the damp, tropical soil.
At the time of writing, more than 80 arrest warrants have been issued, and more than 30 people arrested. They include one very prominent businessman from Satun, a few government officials, but so far no military officers. More than 50 police officers have been transferred.
Will this anti-trafficking drive be sustained?
“We believe there are some much more senior people that were involved in making money off these rackets than have come to light so far,” says Phil Robertson. “There is a lot more to be done, a lot more to be uncovered.”
In the past 10 days, nearly 3,000 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh have been rescued or swum to shore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Several thousand more are believed to be trapped on boats at sea with little food or water in a crisis sparked by smugglers abandoning their human cargo after a Thai crackdown on long-established human-trafficking routes. Picture: AP Photo/ S. Yulinnas.
KOH LIPE, THAILAND/LANGSA, INDONESIA| BY AUBREY BELFORD AND REZA MUNAWIR
A boat crammed with migrants was towed out to sea by the Thai navy and then held up by Malaysian vessels on Saturday, the latest round of “maritime ping-pong” by Asian states determined not to let asylum seekers come ashore.
The United Nations has called on countries around the Andaman Sea not to push back the thousands of desperate Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar now stranded in rickety boats, and to rescue them instead.
“We’re not seeing any such moves from any governments in the region even though we’re calling on the international community to take action because people are dying,” said Jeffrey Savage, who works with the UNHCR refugee agency in Indonesia, where some 1,400 migrants have landed over the past week.
Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 10 miles off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe on Thursday (Reuters)
Nearly 800 came ashore near Langsa in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Friday, many with stories of a grueling voyage that included push-backs from the Malaysian and Indonesian coasts.
Mahmud Rafiq, a 21-year-old Rohingya man who left Myanmar a month ago, recounted how an Indonesian navy ship given them food and medicine before towing their boat to Malaysian waters, where they were again stopped, given supplies and taken right back.
While adrift at sea, he said, the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants had fought fiercely over dwindling supplies of food.
“We had very little food, and we agreed that we would leave it for the women and children,” said Rafiq. “Then they started hitting us. They took the food. They pushed many of us overboard. They beat us and attacked us with knives. I was hit with a wooden plank on the head and on my legs.”
An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded smugglers’ boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the UNHCR has said.
A clampdown by Thailand’s military junta has made a well-trodden trafficking route into Malaysia – one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest economies – too risky for criminals who prey on Rohingya fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and on impoverished Bangladeshis looking for work.
In response, many people-smugglers appear to have abandoned their boats in the Andaman Sea, leaving thousands thirsty, hungry and sick, and without fuel for their vessels’ engines.
One of those boats was towed away from the Thai coast by Thailand’s navy on Saturday, only to be intercepted off the Malaysian coast.
A Reuters journalist on a speedboat taken from southern Thailand’s coast said that the people aboard had little shelter from the blazing sun. Some of the women were crying, and some passengers waved their arms and shouted.
The International Organization for Migration has criticized Southeast Asian governments for playing “maritime ping-pong” with the migrants and endangering their lives.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday urged Thailand to considering sheltering the homeless Rohingya and called on its neighbors not to send the migrants back out to sea.
Responding to the pressure, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his country already had 120,000 illegal migrants from Myanmar and the “humanitarian catastrophe” was a global issue to be resolved by the international community.
“We allow some of them to land and provide humanitarian aid to them but Malaysia must not be burdened with this problem as there are thousands more waiting to flee from their region,” Najib told the state news agency Bernama on Saturday.
The United Nations said this week that the deadly pattern of migration across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ended discrimination.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Myanmar terms the Rohingya “Bengalis”, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
Thailand is hosting talks on May 29 for 15 countries to discuss the crisis.
Myanmar had not received an invitation to the meeting and would not attend if the word Rohingya was used, Zaw Htay, a senior official from the president’s office, said on Saturday.
“We haven’t received any formal invitation from Thailand officially yet,” he said in an emailed response to questions.
“And another thing, if they use the term ‘Rohingya’ we won’t take part in it since we don’t recognize this term. The Myanmar government has been protesting against the use of it all along.”
In a routine note to Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States, while not curtailing engagement with Myanmar as it introduces democratic reforms after decades of military rule, would maintain some sanctions on the country.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said on Friday that Washington continued to raise its concerns with Myanmar over the migrants “because of dire humanitarian and economic situations they face at home out of fear of ethnic and religious violence.”
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok, Aung Hla Tun in Yangon and Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing byTom Heneghan)
Navy officers look at migrants on their boat being towed away from Thailand by a Thai navy vessel, in waters near Koh Lipe island May 16, 2015. REUTERS/AUBREY BELFORD
From the BBC
Who are the Rohingyas?
Rohingyas are a distinct, Muslim ethnic group mainly living in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma
Thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago
Also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
In Myanmar, they are regularly persecuted – subjected to forced labour, have no land rights, and are heavily restricted
In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor, with no documents or job prospects
More than 700 migrants from Burma and Bangladesh were taken to land after the Malaysian navy reportedly packed them onto a single vessel and abandoned it some forty nautical miles from the Indonesian coast.
Thousands of migrants have been left stranded on boats across south-east Asia as nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand ignored requests by the United Nations to assist them to land.
As the crisis threatened to damage relations between countries in the region, Lieutenant Colonel Sunarya, a local police chief in Indonesia, said Malaysia intercepted four boatloads of migrants in its waters five days ago and left them dangerously overloaded on one boat.
He told The Australian that fishermen found the boat at about 10pm and that it was half underwater and “about to sink”.
A separate boat carrying about 300 Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Burma has reportedly left Thai waters where it has been stranded for about a week after Thailand refused to accept them.
Ten people aboard have reportedly died of starvation or illness and were tossed overboard. Passengers told reporters there was no food aboard and they have not eaten for a week.
“We fixed the engine and the boat left last night after 03:00,” said Dejrat Limsiri, the Thai provincial governor.
“We gave them ready-to-eat meals. They are now out of Thailand territory … They will try to go to Indonesia as it seems they cannot get to Malaysia.”
Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 10 miles off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe on Thursday (Reuters)
About 8,000 migrants are believed to be at sea in the region as countries have taken a tougher response in recent weeks.
The crackdown has been condemned by the UN and the US, as well as rights group which warned of a “human ping pong”.
“The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch.
“The world will judge these governments by how they treat these most vulnerable men, women, and children.”
BEIJING — Nearly every week, new reports surface of Muslim Uighurs trying to flee China. They’ve been found in refugee camps in Thailand and caught with fake passports trying to board planes. This week, Chinese police gunned down two Uighurs after they reportedly tried to cross China’s southern border into Vietnam.
The exodus has strained China’s relations with other countries, especially with Turkey, which has a historic bond with Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group.
So why are so many Uighurs – pronounced “WEE-ghurs” – trying to flee China?
According to human rights groups and other analysts, many are trying to avoid persecution and bloodshed in Xinjiang province, the area in far-western China that Uighurs have long called their homeland. Uighur emigration has tended to spike after bouts of violence in Xinjiang, and over the last three years, riots and clashes with Chinese police have become commonplace.
Beijing has a different answer. The official Chinese line is that a large number of these would-be exiles are terrorists, bent on waging holy war abroad and bringing it back to China. And Beijing seems to be growing increasingly impatient with anyone who suggests otherwise.
“Contrary to our Western colleagues’ portrayal, they (Uighur emigrants) are not innocent, helpless members of an ethnic minority fleeing ‘suppression’ at home in pursuit of ‘freedom,’” the government-controlled China Daily wrote in an editorial Tuesday.
China’s soldiers in Xinjiang
“They are religious extremists headed to the forefronts of Islamic jihad, and devotees of the Islamic State group.”
There’s no doubt that, for decades, Muslim Uighurs have left China to join wars and jihads abroad. Starting in the mid-1980s, Uighur militants trained with Afghan mujahedeen in their U.S.-supported battle against the Soviet Union. After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured Uighurs thought to be working with al Qaida and sent 22 of them to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, they were cleared of wrongdoing and released to other countries.
Until 9/11, it was fairly easy for Uighurs to escape China by slipping into Kazakhstan and the other “stans” that border Xinjiang. But over the last 13 years, China has worked with neighboring countries to make those borders less porous. It also has made it more difficult for Uighurs to obtain passports.
As a result, discontented Uighurs are finding other routes out of China, especially by crossing into Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, according to Jacob Zenn, a security analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research center. Once in Thailand, they can easily obtain fake passports to travel on to Turkey or other countries.
Uighur men sell sheep and other animals in a livestock market in Yapqan, southeast of Kashgar, in Xinjiang, China on Sept. 2, 2014. Uighurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group in China, have long resisted China’s hold over what they consider their homeland. Many have recently been caught trying to flee the country, and some have been killed in clashes with border police. STUART LEAVENWORTH — McClatchy
In March last year, Thai authorities detained two separate groups of people thought to be Uighurs who’d crossed into Thailand without proper documentation. One group of 112 was found in Sa Kaew province near the Thai-Cambodia border. Another group, of 220 people, was found in a jungle camp in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province.
While China has labeled escaping Uighurs as potential terrorists, many of those held in Thailand are women and children, as televised footage from the country shows. Police found the Songkhla group hungry and mosquito-bitten, with some carrying Chinese bus tickets and their life’s possessions.
“There is no indication whatsoever that the group being held in detention in Thailand are ‘terrorists,’” Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email. He said Chinese authorities have made no apparent attempt to single out those detained for “special action,” as would occur if any of them were suspected militants.
China’s concerns about its southern borders have increased since a mob of Uighurs attacked a train station in south China on March 1. Wielding swords and knives, the mob carried out a bloody attack against passengers and police in a train station in Kunming, north of the Vietnam border. Chinese officials say the rampage stemmed from angry “Xinjiang terrorists” stopped from sneaking across the border, a claim that has yet to be independently verified.
Since then, China has set up a special task force to intercept smugglers and people trying to cross borders illegally. Some 352 smugglers and 852 “stowaways” have been arrested over the last eight months, the Ministry of Public Security said Sunday.
Last week, Chinese authorities also announced they had arrested 10 Turkish citizens in Shanghai for their role in attempting to smuggle Uighur “terrorists” out of the country. According to Global Times, a Chinese government publication, police captured the suspects in November when nine Uighurs attempted to flee the country with altered Turkish passports, with the help of two Chinese nationals, who were also arrested.
The arrests have further complicated an already tense relationship between China and Turkey. Turkey is home to thousands of Uighur exiles. Many Turks feel a kinship with Uighurs, seeing them as the descendants of nomadic Turks who settled in Xinjiang – which Uighurs call East Turkestan – centuries ago.
Yet Turkey has a $24 billion bilateral trade relationship with China. Many Turks don’t want to jeopardize it. Chinese officials already have issued harsh statements against Turkey for offering refuge to Uighur refugees found in Thailand. Beijing wants them deported to China, where rights groups fear that they could be imprisoned or tortured.
“Turkey is stuck in a dilemma,” said Metin Gurcan, a Ankara-based security specialist and former Turkish military adviser. The government, he said, is trying to keep the Uighur issue “low profile” so as not to antagonize either Uighur exiles or China.
One source of friction – Turkish smuggling networks that reportedly transport Uighurs and other Muslims through Turkey to the battlefront in Syria and Iraq. In Tuesday’s editorial, China Daily accused Turkey of “shilly-shallying” in stopping these networks and cracking down on Uighur militant groups. These groups are known by various names, including the Turkistan Islamic Party and East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Several countries and the United Nations have designated the Turkistan Islamic Party as a terrorist organization, and the group has issued repeated statements and videos in support of Uighur attacks in Xinjiang over the last three years. Even so, several security analysts are unsure if it is a functional organization and has had any real role in carrying out those attacks.
“It doesn’t seem like these repeated incidents (in China) have connections outside,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in a telephone interview. “In general, groups outside are not claiming responsibility. You would think they would do so to claim credibility and enhance their ability to attract funding and support.”
Analysts are divided on the degree that Uighurs have joined the Islamic State. In July, China’s Middle East envoy, Ambassador Wu Sike, estimated there are at least 100 Chinese citizens fighting for the Islamic State, but the actual number may be higher. On Wednesday, Malaysia’s home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, told the Bernama news agency that more than 300 Chinese nationals have used Malaysia as a transit point to join the Islamic State. Ahmad Zahid said he learned those figures from China’s vice minister of public security during a meeting Wednesday.
Pantucci says it isn’t surprising that the Islamic State has attracted disaffected Muslims from China, which has more than 10 million Uighurs and roughly 15 million Hui Muslims. “They are drawing in radicals from everywhere,” he said.
Even some non-Uighur Chinese have joined the fight in Syria. The most prominent is a Han Chinese named Wang Bo. He reportedly traveled from Libya to Syria to join a battalion that later became part of the Islamic State. He appeared in a 2013 video vowing to attack the “Chinese economy” in revenge for China’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. His whereabouts now are uncertain.
Another foreign fighter is Chen Weiming, a Chinese-born artist and naturalized New Zealand citizen who has also appeared in several videos from Syria.
Chen Weiming is pictured with members of the Free Syria Army in 2012 in Syria, location unknown. Chen is a Chinese-born artist and naturalized New Zealand citizen who says he has made three trips to Syria since 2011 to fight with and help the FSA topple the Syrian government. STUART LEAVENWORTH — McClatchy
In a telephone interview from his home in New Zealand, Chen told McClatchy he has made three visits to Syria since 2011 to fight with and help the Free Syrian Army, a group that has received limited U.S. support in its battle to oust the Syrian president.
“I went there because I believe in freedom,” said Chen, known for his “Goddess of Democracy” statue, a tribute to victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. “I believe we should help people under dictatorship, whether they are in China or Syria.”
Vietnam’s border with China
During his time in Syria, Chen said he did not encounter any Uighur fighters, but he understands there are several there. He scoffed at Chinese claims that Uighur militants abroad are exporting terrorism back to China.
“In Xinjiang, the people labeled terrorists are using knives and then getting shot by police,” he said. “Real terrorists use much different weapons.”
While that may be so, other observers say it is just a matter of time before Uighur militants abroad become as radicalized – and well-armed – as their counterparts elsewhere.
In a post this week in Al-Monitor, Gurcan noted a shift in traditional Uighur interpretations of the Quran.
Whereas Uighurs once adhered to the “the school of Imam Maturidi” – a highly moderate school of Islamic thought – they are moving toward more radical ideas, wrote Gurcan, citing the research of another Turkish analyist, Hussein Rasit Yilmaz.
In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities almost every month announce a new regulation aimed at preventing radicalization. Men can’t grow long beards. Women are discouraged from wearing veils. For several years, young Uighurs have been unable to enter mosques.
On Friday, a story in China Daily announced that China was strengthening its military presence in Xinjiang to prevent terrorist attacks and better enforce border controls.
“The Chinese are taking this seriously, as they should,” said Pantucci. On the other hand, he noted, “If you overreact to a terrorist incident, you could play into their hands and create a bigger problem.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.