By Bruce Fan
Staff Writer

Recent international spotlight has been focused on the two Myanmar migrants who were allegedly tortured by police to extract a “confession” for murdering two British tourists in Thailand. The trail is still underway. The defense lawyer representing the migrants alleges that the Burmese migrants were coerced to make a false confession and are not the actual perpetrators of the crime.

Both migrants have recounted the various words spoken and actions taken by the police prior to the “confessions”. For instance, during their arrest, a police officer told one of the migrants that “those who don’t have passports don’t have rights…if they disappear, nobody would notice.” Such a statement insinuated what was to come for the two migrants as they were separated and tortured individually. To begin, one of the migrants named Nakhon stated that “police officers flicked his genitals hard, pulled his legs apart and took photographs of him naked.”Furthermore, the police “kicked him in the back, punched him, slapped him, threatened to tie him to a rock and drop him in the sea, chop off his arms and legs, throw his body into the sea to feed the fish.” Zaw Lin, the other migrant, stated that police explicitly told him that if he didn’t confess guilt to the crimes then he would be killed. Proof has also been given on the side of the defense as prison doctors have confirmed evidence of such injuries from the claimed torture. If anything, the key words spoken and actions taken by the Thai Police during torture serve to show the lack of rights afforded to Burmese migrants in Thailand. And in response to such alleged police actions to the trial, many rights group are defending the migrants, stating that they are being used as scapegoats for the crime simply because they are undocumented migrants who are denied rights in Thailand.

This case serves to highlight the issue of rights for the undocumented Burmese in Thailand that has been occurring for quite some time now. Generally, rights have been non-existent for Burmese undocumented migrants. Often times, Burmese migrants face severe worker exploitation with overworked hours, wages under national regulation, and other forms of mistreatment. The International Organization for Migration’s estimates that 1.4 million unregistered workers and family members are being legally unprotected from severe exploitation by Thailand’s industries.Additionally, many migrants have to pay money to traverse to Thailand only to have their wages “cut and passports and work permits confiscated by the agent.” For example, Soe Min Pai and his fellow workers were forced to work for free for 10 days upon arriving in Thailand, and still do not receive the full wages that were promised to them initially.To add, any migrants who are injured on-the-job receive no compensation. For example, Niang Lin is a migrant worker in Thailand who “lost his hand in a machine accident at a plastics factory and received no compensation until a local NGO HRDF helped out.”

Undocumented Burmese women also face the dangers of rape and sexual abuse in Thailand. Street gangs often rape Burmese women by justifying that “Burmese women are illegal migrants and we can’t be arrested if we rape them”. Such actions are especially unsettling as the Thai government and police do little to nothing to protect these women. For instance, the Raks Thai Foundation Lawyer states that “only five percent of rape complaints are followed up by the authorities…if you are Burmese, your case is delayed and you can’t get fair justice”. Furthermore, many victims of rape do not even dare report such crimes because they feel ashamed and fear deportation by the Thai government. As a result, such crimes are going unnoticed and unpunished as Burmese women have little to choice but to remain silent in Thailand.

One may then wonder why it is that the Burmese are still flocking over to Thailand and why so many choose remain there despite such horrid working conditions. The answer is both political and economic. To begin, many Burmese left for Thailand due to the political instability that occurred in Myanmar under its military dictatorship that reigned there in full force till 2011. Under this dictatorship, numerous human rights were abused and any opposition was highly oppressed. The ruthlessness of the dictatorship can be shown through the Democracy Summer’s 4-day massacre, as troops killed at least 10,000 protesters across the country during August of 1988. Despite elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, many Burmese continue to flock to and stay in Thailand because the military dictatorship still survives during this transition time, and still could possibly return sometime in the future. Economically speaking, Burmese undocumented migrants remain upset because a huge wage differential still exists between what they earn in Thailand versus what they would earn back home at Myanmar. In addition, many migrants believe that workers’ rights and conditions are no better in Burma than in Thailand. As best explained by an expert, “as long as workers [abroad] don’t fall into situations and severe debt bondage or trafficking, and even if they had bad employers, they can still usually save and send home more money than they ever could from working in [Burma].” From such statements, one can see why Burmese migrants illegally cross the border into Thailand. They truly believe that they are running from political instability and violence in Myanmar towards a land of economic opportunity in Thailand.

All in all, it seems that the Burmese migrants in Thailand face inhumane conditions as they are discriminated and exploited by Thai corporations, gangs, and even the police. Evidence can be shown of this through the Thai police treatment of the two migrants, working conditions, and the sexual assaults of Burmese women. Although NGOs and other human rights groups have tried to do what they can to help these migrants; one can’t help but wonder what more can be done to help these undocumented workers. Is the huge wage differential between working in Myanmar and Thailand worth such exploitation and lack of rights for Burmese citizens? And so, as this court case regarding the murder of the two British tourists unfolds under international spotlight, perhaps one may see a change in the Thai government’s policies towards undocumented workers. Such a decision is important not only in regards to migrant workers in Thailand, but for everyone across the globe as it opens up and addresses the larger question of universal human rights.

Image By: 104_PancakeSeller


By Alex Shkurko
Staff Writer

In the waters of Southeast Asia’s Andaman Sea, Rohingya migrants have captured the world’s attention with their tragic tale of religious persecution, repression and hopelessness. Confined to large boat-shaped hunks of rusted metal and in creaking wooden hulls crowded full beyond their intended capacities, these people search for safe-haven among the coastal countries directly south of Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal, where they first began their treacherous journey. Originally hailing from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Muslim Rohingya minority has endured unrelenting persecution from both the government and the local people of the majority Buddhist country. Myanmar’s recent transition to democracy following 49 years of military junta rule has done much to ease economic sanctions, though inequality remains rampant. However, political liberalization has yet to translate into better treatment for the Rohingya. On the contrary, ethnic relations have intensified, resulting in the current refugee crisis.

An estimated 25,000 people, mostly Rohingya refugees, have fled Myanmar in the first four months of this year, a 100 percent increase from the same period of the previous year. What’s directly motivated the surge in migration is a matter of opinion at this point. However, the Rohingya have been continuously targeted and have been departing from Myanmar’s shores in search of wealthier nations since the beginning of the decade. Myanmar’s government has refused to accept the Rohingya and grant them citizenship even though some families can trace their heritage back centuries to Rakhine. Along with the denial of citizenship come restrictions on travel within the country and a blanket refusal to refer to the people as “Rohingya,” instead opting for the more sterile and politically beneficial “Bengali.” This in turn rids the Rohingya of their ethnic identity and implies that they’re of Bangladeshi origin. Hardliner Buddhists fervently believe that they crept in from Bangladesh over the past 50 years and have been deceitful about their heritage. The situation only becomes direr upon realization that Bangladesh doesn’t acknowledge the Rohingya as their own people either! Instead, the Bangladeshi government corals them into refugee camps that today house more than 200,000 Rohingya, a number that continues to grow rapidly as Buddhist mobs attack Rohingya villages.

Buddhists constitute 89 percent of Myanmar’s population. While contradictory to commonly held Western views of Buddhism, monasteries play host to many aggravated groups who together decry the toxic effects of living amongst Muslims. “Vipers in our laps” is how one young monk describes their presence. Despite being forbidden to kill, many Buddhists feel threatened by their presence and have tried to rid the region of them through the use of violence. Particularly troubling are the effects of installing a democracy in a state that has lived under a military dictatorship for over 50 years. With the power to finally choose for themselves, factions of the majority have naturally turned to their own prejudices and fears to move the country in the direction they believe best. To compound the issue, political leaders are forced to cater to the political majority whose hatred is pushing the country towards genocide.

In the aftermath of the country’s first democratic, but highly contested, elections in 2010, Buddhist groups developed and promoted a metric meant to rid the country of a majority of its one million Muslims. The measure called for the proof of three generations of legal residence in the country. Anyone that could not meet that arbitrary baseline would be put into refugee camps and sent to any country that would have them. The notion of being a refugee in your own country is a fascinatingly cruel one and deserves particular notice. What once resembled a socially and economically unequal system has further devolved into violence between the two peoples and has become socially unsustainable.

Two years ago, Thein Sein, the President of Myanmar adopted the same rhetoric and proclaimed to a United Nations (UN) delegation that any Muslim whose family has not resided in the country for at least three generations was a de facto “threat to the peace of the nation,” a statement that drew a quick rebuke from UN. In the same year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Myanmar government was an accessory to the murder, rape and mass persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Through interviews they were able to confirm that the army stood idly by as the number of deaths piled up and were only moved to rein in the sectarian violence after much bloodletting. In one instance, authorities’ half-hearted efforts to quell massive anger following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingyan man cascaded into the brutal murder of 10 Muslim men aboard a local bus. Subsequent Rohingya counter riots resulted in the pillaging of Rakhine Buddhist property and even more deaths. The government’s direct complicity in attacks on Rohingya Muslims should not be ignored either. In one case, soldiers fired upon a Rohingyan man and his family as they attempted to put out the house-fire started by a group of Rakhine Buddhists. In another instance, a local man observed the paramilitary shoot “at least six people- one woman, two children, and three men,” before dragging their bodies away.

It doesn’t appear that the forces of ethnic dissonance have subsided since 2012. In fact, they’ve only grown and multiplied as evidenced by the increased migration we can observe today. Between January and March of this year, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 300 people have died in journeys departing from the coastal waters of Bangladesh and Myanmar. Malaysia has historically been the destination of choice for migrants due to its disproportionate number of high skilled workers and its tendency to look the other way when cheap unskilled labor presented itself on its shores. However, the journey is a difficult one rife with opportunities for extortion, death and sexual violence. Abductions and forced marriages-as-payment are prevalent. Brokers often make deals with would-be migrants and offer them the journey free of charge in exchange for regular collections from their future wages. If they accept this deal, prospective migrants lose any leverage they had and put themselves at risk of being in effect, indentured servants- as lender interest rates are often 100 percent. Rape by crewmembers was commonly mentioned in interviews gathered by the UNHCR and any migrant attempts to quell violence were met with harsh beatings. Human trafficking saturates the region and disproportionately affects Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar is directly creating the market for smuggling and human trafficking by harassing the Rohingya and not doing more to mediate their conflict with the Buddhists. They must overcome their religious hatred towards the Muslims, if only to improve the livelihood of their own communities.

As we observe daily reports of sinking boats and asylum rejections from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, we must pressure our own government to demand that more be done. Let aid be predicated on the treatment of migrants. What is dually incorrigible and reprehensible is the rejection of migrants fleeing religious persecution and the perpetually promoted human rights ethos that these Southeast Asian countries have. Upon encountering a migrant vessel, a Thai navy ship proceeded to conclude that the migrants did not want to dock and instead wished to continue their journey. A reporter observed the piercing desperation present on the migrants’ faces. Upon refilling the vessel with enough fuel for 33 hours and providing food, water and batteries, the sailors of the Thai navy ship felt that they had satisfied their duty. Despite lacking a crew, who had abandoned the boat in the previous week, the navy was confident in the skill of the passengers to navigate the seas and “reach their dream destination”. The decision to leave was supposedly made by a leader of the group, much to the disdain of the women who cried as the ship departed. Even in this instance, the loss of innocent lives could be avoided and we should continue to pressure governments to realize this.

Image by UNHR Photo Unit