25 Jun 2012

Dangerous waters for Burma’s Rohingya minority

As Burma’s rulers claim the country is embracing democracy, Asia correspondent John Sparks reports on the perilous attempts of native Rohingya people to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

At the end of a jetty in the town of Teknaf in Bangladesh, the sound of misery rose up above the wind and the waves. 140 men and boys were caught by the coastguard at first light, and a camera team filmed as they pleaded and prayed for their lives.

After weeks of violence in north west Burma, members of that country’s Muslim minority, also known as the “Rohingya”, are trying to flee. But no one wants them. A camera crew filmed as members of the Bangladesh coastguard handed out water and packs or rice and bread rolls before ordering them back onto their boats.

They were a sorry-looking group, many of whom were crying uncontrollably. Their boats were leaky and badly overloaded, but it wasn’t the voyage they men fear most – they are petrified of returning to Burma.

“They’ll kill me,” said one man who had to be dragged on a boat. The camera team heard the reply from a member of the coast guard: “Allah will save you. Now go back.”

In Burma’s Rakhine state, the fires have been burning for several weeks now. Homes have been raised and lives taken by hate filled mobs. Ethnic Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya blame each other for the violence, but hard facts are difficult to come by.

International NGOs have pulled their staff out – too dangerous they say – while Burma’s government refuses to let independent observers in. The result is an information vacuum – no-one knows what the death toll or how many have escaped the violence.

The United Nations says 90,000 people have been displaced by the violence but they have little more than guesswork to rely on. The head of the UNHCR in Bangladesh, Craig Saunders told us: “It is very, very difficult to get an accurate picture of what is actually going on.”

Information is scarce, but the camera team found people willing to talk. They spoke to Rohingya refugees who’d made the crossing to Bangladesh. Some have hidden in farmers’ shacks. Others have been taken in by sympathetic locals – and most were seemed deeply traumatised.

One illegal entrant, called Shahara, said: “My sisters, brothers and other relatives were burnt alive. They burnt my own children. We couldn’t bear it any more so we came to Bangladesh. The coastguard turned us back three times – and we floated at sea for four days and four nights. Then we managed to sneak in. Three of our children were burnt to death in Burma. Another two died in the boat getting here.”

Her husband Mohammad said that local policemen and members of the military in Burma had sided with the ethnic Buddhists – participating in attacks on Muslims. He said he saw a Burmese helicopter attack boats packed with refugees: “There were three boats together when we set off – and another three followed us. The three boats that lagged behind where attacked by a helicopter and caught fire.”

He thinks almost 50 people were killed, adding: “We saw something reddish fall on the boats and instantly they exploded into flames.”

A regional official in Burma today denied this allegation, pointing out that there was “only one” helicopter in Rakhine state which is “unarmed”.

We don’t know what happened to the men and the boys filmed on the jetty in Teknaf.

A local contact said five of the boats, pushed back into the sea, had disappeared by the next morning – but like much of the testimony we’ve heard, we have been unable to verify this.

Still, events in Burma are a catastrophe for the Rohingya, a little-known group of people who nobody seems to want. Only dialogue and generosity and human decency will prevent further loss of life.