Maungdaw

Picking on the little guys: Phuketwan

9/6/14

The tragic story of Burma’s boatpeople is now known the world over; countless Rohingya Muslims pay brokers to transport them by boat to neighbouring countries, in a desperate attempt to escape poverty and violence. Many die on harsh seas, others fall into the hands of human traffickers. The United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of people in the region — many of them stateless Rohingya Muslims — risked their lives to flee by boat since just the start of this year.

But this story goes back much, much further. Before Burma’s reforms began and steered the world’s attention to the once-isolated Southeast Asian nation, and before a rash of riots beginning in June 2012 caused a sudden, mass exodus of Rohingyas, people were already fleeing and someone was paying attention.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian (known by her nickname, Oi) run a small, online news website based in Phuket, Thailand. As editor and reporter, respectively, they are currently the entire staff of Phuketwan. Morison and Chutima were among the first journalists to report on Rohingya asylum seekers crossing the Andaman Sea en route to Malaysia. They became known as a consistent and trustworthy source of information on the obscure topic, and hence were often contracted by international media to assist with reporting.

Their years of reporting and assisting other journalists were relatively unhindered until July 2013, when they published an article quoting excerpts from a Reuters investigative report about the smuggling of Rohingyas. The Royal Thai Navy brought defamation charges against the pair, who now face up to seven years in jail. Their trial will begin in March 2015, and Morison, an Australian, is bound to remain in-country on a criminal visa until a verdict is reached. His visa status could cause the publication to shut down.

Reuters, a London-based news agency, is not facing charges over the disputed content and has been silent about the case against Phuketwan. To make matters more awkward, news soon emerged that Chutima was hired by Reuters to facilitate parts of their investigation, which was recently awarded one of journalism’s highest honours: a Pulitzer Prize.

Some speculate that the pair is being singled out and punished for their work, which ultimately helped to bring this horrendous story of abuse and neglect into the global conscience. DVB spoke with Morison and Chutima about their work, their charges, and the responsibilities of a free and professional press.

 

Q: Before Reuters reached out to you, Phuketwan was already well known for breaking the story of Thailand’s ‘push back’ policy, a short-lived directive to send asylum seekers back to sea with no assistance. How did this story come about?

CS: We were doing an interview with a commander in 2008. We asked if there were any concerns about security in the Andaman Sea, and he mentioned the Rohingya. After that, we decided to come back. I tried to ask for permission from the Thai navy to get on the patrol boats, because I wanted to know more about the Rohingya. But they wouldn’t give me permission.

Some months later, the Navy, after I pushed them very hard, they sent me a picture. They said, ‘Ok, here’s a picture of the Rohingyas that we arrested yesterday at Surin Island.’ It was a picture of them laid out on the beach. And I thought, ‘Jeez, this is a very good story!’

I went to my university, one of my friends — he is an officer — he also knew about the Rohingya. He’s the one I started the investigation with. He said he saw that they have a new policy to deal with the Rohingya by the Internal Security Operations Command [ISOC, a unit of the Thai military]. So any police station that had any Rohingyas in their custody had to transfer them all to the ISOC in Ranong province. So we just went to Ranong and we scanned every area. This side, that side, the top of that mountain, whatever.

Several days later, we found a kitty boat, a Rohingya boat, in a village. The people there told us, ‘This is from the Rohingya’, so we checked it out. We found that the boat had stopped at Red Sand Island.

 

Q: Before that time, were you aware that there was a problem of Rohingya smuggling?

CS: No, no, we weren’t aware of smuggling, but I had read some information on the Internet about violence in Burma, and that they [Rohingyas] weren’t citizens.

At the time, we wanted to send a message back to their families because nobody was covering this, and many people were drowning on these boats. You know, the high sea, the monsoon, many people ended up dead.

 

Q: So those that do make it to Thailand, what happens to them?

AM: There were about 2,000 Rohingyas in detention here for quite some time. After the discovery of women and children on the boats [in January 2013], Thailand changed its policy and, for a time, took Rohingya into detention centres. About six months later they found that they couldn’t find a solution. They had to somehow get rid of these people quietly, without too much attention.

That’s when they started the practice of ‘soft deportation’.

All of Thailand’s intentions to do right by those people just fell by the wayside; they couldn’t find a third country, in the end they didn’t know what to do with them so they developed the policy of soft deportation, and they all just disappeared.

Oi and I spent a night up in Ranong because we had been told by somebody that a convoy [of detained Rohingyas about to be deported via land crossing] was coming. We were waiting for these buses to turn up, I think there were three buses, and sure enough it was Rohingya who had been captured down south and trucked up to the Ranong immigration detention centre.

We were there when the buses arrived in the middle of the night, around 2am. They had to be fingerprinted and go through all the normal checks, and treated as Burmese would be who are being deported. But with the Rohingya it’s a little bit different, they don’t actually go back to Burma, they drop them off on the beach.

 

Q: Is there no documentation of these deportations?

AM: There would be, in Ranong. There would be a record that they’d all been sent back to Burma, but they’re just left on a beach.

A ‘soft deportation’, I would say, is dropping people off at a beach in Burma and either letting human traffickers pick them up or leaving them to their own devices, rather than handing them back to officials.

Q: Subsequent investigations have concluded that some asylum seekers are intercepted by human traffickers, who keep them captive in jungle camps and demand ransom for their passage to Malaysia. Have you been to any of these camps?

AM: Oi has. She’s raided some of the camps, but I think they seldom find any people in them because the word gets around and the locations are shifted. What we’ve heard lately is that the camps are now becoming less accessible to everybody and guarded by more people. They have the guards further out so no one can get in. It’s more difficult these days for the authorities to get at them, as well.

 

Q: You’ve clearly been very active on these issues. Phuketwan reported consistently on the arrival of the boats in January 2013, which you mentioned a moment ago. Has the lawsuit affected your ability to carry out your work?

CS: It has burned a lot of energy; it takes up a lot of our time.

But also, the military is involved in every issue in Thailand. It [the lawsuit] makes things difficult, because I still have to report what happens, what’s going on. I can’t avoid them, because they are in charge of the country. There are some officers that just intimidate us. It’s not that all of them are bad, but just some.

 

Q: In April, a Reuters spokesperson told DVB that your role in the agency’s investigation was ‘very limited’. How, exactly, were you involved in the Reuters investigation?

CS: They emailed Alan because they were looking for someone who was working on the Rohingya issue. I was working for them as a fixer, and they used all my material, all my contacts. I accompanied them for parts of the investigation.

 

Q: What do you think about how Reuters has reacted to your case?

CS: They ignored me [laughs]. I’m very disappointed. Very disappointed. They should stand for the principle of support for the press and for free media in Thailand.

AM: The way Khun Oi’s role as fixer was dismissed by Reuters was a disgrace, unbecoming behaviour from Pulitzer Prize-winners. Oi worked with Jason [Szep] twice, I believe. All the other international teams she has worked with haven’t been so reluctant to recognise that Khun Oi’s contacts on the Rohingya saga in Thailand, built up over the years, allowed them to quickly get to the people involved.

Reuters have let the little guys take the rap. It’s their 41 words, not ours. But they are nowhere to be seen. We have enormous amounts of support from every rights group and media body with even the vaguest interest in the case, except for Reuters.

 

 

 

 

Census-takers fail to count Rohingyas

4/1/14

The current census of the Burmese population is failing to include thousands of Rohingya Muslims due to a standoff over semantics – on one hand, enumerators refuse to record the subjects as “Rohingya” on their questionnaires, while in other cases the householders refuse to answer any further census-related questions if their request to record their ethnicity as such is ignored.

Speaking to DVB on Monday, Rohingya activist and community leader Aung Win said that enumerators in the Sittwe neighbourhood of Bumay, when faced with a Rohingya family, had been writing in “Bengali” – the preferred term for the stateless minority among many Burmese – while other census-takers had left blank the column: “Question 8 – Ethnicity”. He said in either case, the Rohingyas refused to continue to answer the survey.

However, the following day, Aung Win said that the approach had changed in Rohingya homes in Sittwe’s Thay Chaung neighbourhood. He said that on Tuesday, it was the enumerators who refused to continue the survey.

“When the census-collectors enter homes in these [Rohingya] areas, they immediately ask the people: ‘What is your race?’ When the people say ‘Rohingya’, they walk out.”

He said that the same version of events had been relayed to him by Rohingya residents in Maungdaw and Budithaung on Tuesday.

Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya support group, said that she had received similar reports from residents in Maungdaw.

“Local Arakan authorities have been putting pressure on Rohingya community leaders to get their people to take part in the census, and they have threatened those who do not participate with punishment,” she said.

“I have been told that when people identify themselves as ‘Rohingya’, the enumerators just stop writing,” Lewa told DVB on Tuesday. “I also hear that they are taking photographs of those who proclaim their ethnicity as ‘Rohingya’.”

She added that she believed “tensions are mounting”.

A source in the Aung Mingalar enclave of Sittwe, where more than 4,000 Rohingyas are sheltered, albeit under strict security conditions, said that the census enumerators had yet to conduct the survey in that neighbourhood. However, he said on condition of anonymity, many people were anxious because reports from Maungdaw indicated that census-collectors were arriving at the doorsteps of Rohingya households accompanied by police, military personnel and immigration officials in a bid to force the Muslims to comply with the census conditions whereby they register themselves as “Bengalis”.

Oo Hla Saw, the general-secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said he backed the enumerators’ actions. “Actually there are some Muslims identifying their ethnicity in the census as ‘Bengali’ and some as ‘Kaman’,” he said. “However, others are bitter and defiant, and insist on calling themselves ‘Rohingyas’, a term that is recognised by neither the Arakan State government nor the central government.”

The Arakanese politician continued: “If they refuse to cooperate with the schoolteachers who are collecting the data, then there is little more they [the enumerators] can do but to turn around and walk out. This is my understanding of the situation.”

He pointed out to DVB that although there were some hiccups with the census in some places, it went smoothly in other areas.

William Ryan, the regional communications adviser to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which is a major international backer of the census, confirmed to DVB that he had been made aware of reports alleging that Rohingyas had not been counted in the census in some parts of Arakan State.

Ryan said the UNFPA was looking to the Burmese government to protect the rights of the populace and conduct the census according to international standards.

In a statement on Tuesday, UNFPA said it is “deeply concerned about the Myanmar [Burmese] Government’s decision not to allow census respondents who wish to self-identify their ethnicity as Rohingya to do so.

“In its agreement with the United Nations on the 2014 census, the Government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles. It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what     ethnicity they belong to, including those who wish to record their identity as of mixed ethnicity. Those not identifying with one of the listed ethnic categories would        be able to declare their ethnicity and have their response recorded by the enumerator.”

The nationwide census, Burma’s first in more than 30 years, started on Sunday, 30 March, and is due to conclude on 10 April. Teams of more than 80,000 enumerators – made up mostly of schoolteachers who have been trained to conduct the survey during school holidays – are accompanied by domestic and international observers as they fan across the country.

Rohingyas continue to be persecuted despite Nasaka disbandment

8/23/13

Burma’s ethnic Rohingya continue to face heavy persecution in northern Arakan state, despite the dissolution of a controversial border guard force which had been implicated in mass atrocities against the Muslim community.

According to an independent report seen by DVB on Friday, Rohingyas living in the Muslim-majority Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships near the Bangladeshi border have been “subject to a campaign of mass arrest and renewed restrictions” since a wave of clashes with Buddhists in Arakan state last year.

Although Rohingyas in northern Arakan suffered fewer casualties, less segregation and displacement in the violence compared to those in Buddhist-majority regions, abuses against them are of “significant concern” and a climate of harassment and insecurity persists.

Hundreds of Rohingyas, including children, the elderly and four humanitarian workers, continue to be detained since last year’s riots which displaced over 140,000 people across the western state. The vast majority are being held in the notorious Buthidaung prison, where credible reports of “systematic torture” have emerged.

“They have not had access to fair judicial process and many had been tortured before or in jail custody,” warned the report. “While some are still awaiting trial, many were convicted with harsh prison sentences.”

Earlier this week, Buthidaung court sentenced 43 Rohingya detainees to jail terms ranging from six years to life for their alleged role in the violence. It is also alleged that “several truckloads” of Rohingya inmates, including children, were transferred out of the jail in the days preceding the visit of Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN special Rapporteur, to the area in mid-August. They were reportedly sent back after he left.

This account was confirmed by Shwe Maung, a Rohingya MP from Buthidaung township. “An eyewitness called me before the visit of Mr Quintana and said that about 200 prisoners were moved to Maungdaw and after the visit they were [moved] back,” he told DVB on Friday.

Quintana, who wrapped up a 10-day visit to Burma this week, told DVB that concerns about torture in Buthidaung jail were legitimate.

“I can confirm last year during the violence that hundreds of Muslims in detention were subjected to systematic use of torture,” he said in an exclusive interview. “These are crimes that the government is obliged to investigate and to hold accountable those who are responsible.”

Meanwhile local sources say that the disbanding of the notorious Nasaka border guard force, which was set up in 1992 to patrol the Bangladeshi border, has only brought “modest improvements” and many Rohingyas view the move as simply “old wine in a new bottle”.

The report notes that while police officers have reduced their reliance on forced labour and eased some local travel restrictions, the collection of arbitrary taxation has skyrocketed. Rickshaw drivers have reported being forced to pay 100 kyat (US$0.10) each time they pass through police checkpoints outside of Maungdaw.

Shwe Maung adds that Rohingyas are still unable to travel between townships, such as Buthidaung and Maungdaw, and workers without travel permits have been arrested at police checkpoints.

“Even though the Nasaka was disbanded, people are still not allowed to move freely, they cannot go freely to Maungdaw, they cannot go freely to Sittwe. So socio-economically, it is very bad,” said Shwe Maung, who represents the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

After a meeting with Quintana, the Arakan Chief of Police confirmed that anyone found in possession of a Bangladeshi mobile phone or SIM card would be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with existing laws. But he denied that Rohingyas were subject to a two-child limit, as previously affirmed by the Burmese government.

Describing it as a Nasaka “practice”, he added that village administrators would now be in charge of issuing marriage permits, which Rohingya couples are required to obtain. Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan project, said that is too early to assess the long-term impact of the Nasaka’s dissolution, especially relating to the two-child policy but that marriage restrictions were “unlikely” to change.

She added that the main perpetrator of human rights violations and arbitrary arrests was the army, which is exclusively made up of Buddhists. “Nearly all forced labour is now carried out by the military,” said Lewa, who advocates for the rights of Rohingyas.

Locals say there has been a sharp increase in military troops in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, amid news reports that militant pro-Rohingya groups have been active along the border. But Shwe Maung dismissed the reports as “propaganda” intended to stir communal tensions.

President Thein Sein disbanded the Nasaka in mid-July amid heavy international criticisms of its treatment of the Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal Bengali immigrants by the government and denied citizenship in Burma.