No Land to Call Home: Burma’s displaced millions

 |  October 29, 2009

Myawaddy, Burma’s gateway to Thailand, and for many the first milestone on the pathway to a new life. Fleeing from poverty, war and brutal oppression thousands of men, women and children pass through every year, with no idea what lies ahead.

At first, the dirt roads bustling with merchants with pedal carts, women of all ages with great loads on their heads and children running around without shoes paint a romantic picture of a mysterious ethnic world in the east; an untouched land of tradition and perfect simplicity. However, a deeper look shows these are all signs of oppression of the worst kind _ the effects of almost 50 years of being purposely kept weak and poor by one of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Since 2002, between 2-4 million civilians have been forced to leave their homes in Burma due to civil war, development projects and persecution by their own supposed government. In this way, the regime is purposely cutting costs so they can move ahead with military expansion and the export of natural resources for profit.

This kind of abuse and the military’s total monopolisation over local businesses has forced over 700,000 people to leave the country in the past 7 years. The majority go to Thailand, Malaysia, China and Indonesia by means of brokers who charge them hundreds of dollars. In many cases these brokers then sell them to become slave workers and prostitutes. Even those aware of the risks are often without choice, knowing that turning back home will never be an option.

Aung Kyaw from western Burma, who since leaving home uses an alias, has been kept in detention in Bali, Indonesia for over 10 months without trial for being an illegal immigrant. However, when he and four other Burmese unlawfully crossed the international border, they did so unintentionally, locked in the back of a van as part of a deal involving the Burmese and Thai authorities.

Aung Kyaw first left his home in Arakan State in 2005 due to a famine and found work in Thailand. In early 2008 he was deported by Thai police officers, who handed him over to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a local armed group that has been fighting alongside the ruling Burmese military regime since 1994. Together, these armies’ continuous military campaigns have caused the destruction of tens of thousands of villagers and the displacement of millions of civilians in Karen State, many of whom continue to live in the jungle.

“I was tortured by Burmese soldiers and asked for 1,500 baht, but could not afford it. So, I was put in a cell for three days where I was intimidated badly and then sold to a Thai human trafficker collaborating with a Burmese agent,” he said, speaking over the phone from his detention cell last month.

The traffickers then took him and the four others to Indonesia, where they were sold to the owner of a fishing business and forced to work for no pay. Out at sea for over 6 months, they were beaten badly and given little food.

In early 2009 they jumped overboard and swam to escape, not knowing if they were heading for land or further out to sea.

Eventually, they were rescued by a Nepalese fishing boat, which then docked in Bali and handed them over to Indonesian immigration officials, who have kept them locked up since.

“We are given 3 mouthfuls of rice and a slice of meat or some vegetables each day,” said Aung Kyaw, his voice stammering. “Some days, we do not receive any drinking water because the warder is taking our rations. He just takes the water from the washroom and fills the drinking pot in front of us.”

Despite numerous appeals to the Burmese Embassy for assistance, they remain incarcerated in a 10-foot long cell infested with mosquitoes, unsure if they will ever have a country in which to live freely.

For many years nowhere in South East Asia has been worse for human trafficking than Malaysia, especially along its northern border with Thailand. In April this year, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report condemning Malaysian Immigration Department officials for their involvement in such activities.

The report claims that thousands of Burmese refugees and migrant workers, many of whom were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), were being routinely taken by the Malaysian authorities from detention camps to the Thai border and “turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels.”

This has led to a crackdown on such activities and now, rather than being deported via traffickers as they used to be, thousands of Burmese immigrants are being rounded up in overcrowded detention centres for months on end. Many of the arrests are carried out by Rela, a half-million strong civilian taskforce which is paid per person handed into immigration.

According to David Peterson, who works with refugee communities in Kuala Lumpar, detainees are given little food and water and are often subjected to physical and psychological torture at the hands of guards.

“For meals they would be given a small bowl of rice and a piece of dried fish…Also, they are only given one glass of water with each meal so throughout the day they open the pipes in the toilet area and drink the water. This made people sick,” he said.

According to recent figures, around 1,300 people have died in the camps over the past 6 years from infection alone, averaging at 18 deaths per month.

“Each cell of 500-1000 people, would often have around 2 working showerheads…they would be given 30 minutes per day for everyone to have a shower, which could become hectic and fights would often break out.”

In April, Kyaw Twan, a refugee from Arakan State, was taken to Semenyih camp in Kuala Lumpur, where the guards took his UNHCR card, which would have ensured he was released within a few weeks. After repeatedly asking for his card for over 3 weeks he was eventually escorted to the camp registration office where it was kept. To his surprise, he was then led into a room where four guards from the paramilitary group UPP proceeded to brutally beat him until he bled from his skull and face.

“They hit me with rods and kicked me. They asked me if I really needed the card and I told them that I did. They would then smile and tell me I could get the card and the officer would then grab me and throw me to the ground and beat me further. They told me to never mention that card again, because if I did they would beat me harder next time.”

This was one of a series of events that led to a riot at the camp in July 2009. Unrest had begun to stir over the mistreatment of detainees, leading to an effort by guards to move around 60 men to another part of the camp. During the riots that followed, the inmates made demands for better treatment in the detention camp, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Earlier that year, Win Htein, an HIV sufferer detained in Komyin camp, was told by doctors that he could not carry on living in the camps due to his critical health condition. However, the police demanded he return, where he was vigorously beaten on arrival before being locked in a small tin-roofed shed with no windows or clean water.

“They kicked me until I was unconscious,” Win Htein said. “They told me that I infected their country and that I was a plague…They gave me one glass of water per day, threw away my medicine and refused to give me more, even when I was becoming sicker. I’m sure if I had stayed there for months, I would have died.”

After 10 days in solitary confinement, Win Htein was taken to the Thai-Malaysian border where he bought his freedom and returned to Malaysia.
The mass displacement caused by Burma’s military junta is largely undocumented by any of South East Asia’s nations giving rise to numerous illicit trades, often involving local authorities, the so-called protectors of the people.

Mae Sot, Thailand, just across the river from Myawaddy, is home to an estimated 200,000 or more Burmese. With thousands of people from all of Burma’s ethnicities passing through every year, Mae Sot is a centre for migrant workers and for Thai businesses and entrepreneurial policemen, a source of infinite exploitable human resource.

Police often patrol the streets of Mae Sot, demanding bribes from those without documentation. According to a local source, these bribes range from around 300-500 baht for migrant workers and into the thousands for those suspected of political affiliations.

Arrestees are detained in a two floor wire-fenced cage, without being given food for around 3 days, or until they can find enough money to pay a bribe. They are then usually taken to the border and handed over to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

As foreign investment increases in Burma, so does the number of development projects, leading to higher and higher rates of forced relocation, forced labour and other human rights abuse stemming from a higher need for militarisation. Various planned dams and gas and oil projects have been forecast to displace thousands of families across the country. This in turn leads many human rights groups to predict higher rates of migration in coming years.

Furthermore, recent government demands for all of Burma’s armed ceasefire groups to join the national army and become a unified Border Guard Force threatens to lead to a heavy bout of conflict in the coming months. It is expected that fighting could break out once the rainy season comes to a close across Burma’s ethnic regions. This has already been seen this year in August, when over 30,000 civilians from Shan State fled to China during the army’s attack on the armed resistance group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Despite increasing trade ties with all its neighbours, if the Burmese military regime continues to burden surrounding countries with its displaced population, tensions could rise. The Thai government has recently announced plans to cut down on the amount of migrant workers in the country and continual pressure on Malaysia from the USA could be a catalyst for change. However, it’s a slow process and in the meantime those who suffer most are the many people of Burma fleeing one danger to another, with no safe home.