31 May 2013

The plight of Burma's Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp

As Thailand struggles with an influx of Rohingya Muslims from Burma, John Sparks visits a camp where conditions are desperately over-crowded, with barely room to sit.

For a nation on the mend, a one-time pariah shuffling towards responsible, representative government, there was weary, depressing familiarity about events in a place called Lashio this week.

This Burmese city, reluctant host to the latest outbreak of violence and bloodshed between Buddhists and the minority Muslims.

This episode started with a fight at a petrol pump. A few hours later, however, Buddhist mobs were patrolling the streets, burning Muslim homes and businesses and handing out vigilante justice. A man was hacked to death, a mosque and orphanage were destroyed and hundreds of Muslim families are now sheltering in a heavily guarded Buddhist monastery.

The city is relatively remote – more than 400 miles north of the country’s city Yangon (Rangoon) – but the brutality and destruction in this city of 130,000 demonstrates just how quickly anti-Muslim violence is spreading throughout Burma.

As tensions build nationwide, an increasing number of Muslims in Burma are trying to get out – some are leaving for neighbouring countries on foot,  others via rickety craft on the open sea. Activists think more than 20,000 Rohingya Muslims may have fled violence-wracked Rakhine state in north-west Burma.

This desperate exodus has serious implications for Burma’s neighbours – with Thailand in particular now struggling to cope with the influx. Six months ago, the Thai authorities said they would find a place for Rohingya Muslims in Thai detention centres and shelters. A few months later, however, the head of Thailand’s immigration authority, Pharnu Kerdlapphon, informed the media that they had run out of space. “The number of Rohingya entering this country is  worrying,” he said.

We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.

You can see what happened next in our exclusive report but here’s a quick summary. We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed  in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.

My cameraman Matt Jasper and I captured some images of the conditions at Phang Nga – but our pictures do not adequately depict the reality of their squalid existence. This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.

The anxiety and uncertainty experienced by these men is probably a bigger problem than the physical hardships. No-one we spoke to wanted to go back to Burma – but they have no idea what the Thai government is planning to do with them. Back in January, officials said detainees could stay for six months while they sought “another country” to take them – but that period is almost up.

A member of the provincial assembly, Vasit Prayadsap, told me the situation was unacceptable. “I am really concerned,” he said, “because the government still doesn’t know what to do.” At the local level, lock-ups like the one at Phang Nga are clearly not resourced properly. On the day of our visit, Muslim volunteers told us the head of the immigration centre had pleaded with them for donations of cash, clothing and cleaning equipment.

We asked the top government official in the area – the governor of Phang Nga – for an interview. We also sought one from the Thai government – but they both declined. The Thai foreign ministry did provide us with a statement:

“The Thai authorities … are aware of the overcrowding issue at the existing immigration facilities…. alternative arrangements are being identified, and this is a matter of priority. It is hoped that those arrangements will enable the authorities concerned in better addressing the crowdedness issue.”

Still, the head of Thailand’s parliamentary border affairs committee, Samat Malulim, told me the government still had “no concrete plans” for the resettlement of Rohingya. He’s not happy with the current situation either. “The conditions you have seen would even be difficult for animals,” he said.

The foreign ministry points out conditions at other detention centres in Thailand are better than those at Phang Nga and there certainly seems to be some truth to that. We found a women and children’s unit up the coast with outdoor space and adequate supplies of food and medicine.

The living quarters were still crowded, however, and many of the women were depressed – the same air of uncertainty hung over the place. The occupants hadn’t heard from their husbands in months despite the fact that many of them had sailed to Thailand together.

At best, the Thai government’s efforts have been scattered and ad-hoc – but this difficult problem will only get worse if the fighting and the bloodshed in Burma continues.

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