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The perils of Rohingyas

A child standing near a damaged shelter at a Rohingya internally displaced people’s camp outside Sittwe, Rakhine state. Rohingyas face starvation and death at the camp. (Photo: Reuters)

By Datuk Syed Ahmed Idid
August 19, 2015

FACED with mistreatment and atrocities, the Rohingyas have to think of an alternative. Much as Myanmar is their home, they have to flee or else they perish. Yet, in their flight, they meet human leeches who bleed them by charging extortionate fees and excessive monetary charges. On top of this, officials get their bribes, which increased the fees and charges. When they or their families could not pay, they were starved in boats or at land camps, and finally many were senselessly killed.

In late 2013, Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the United Nations, knew “of at least 485 people drowned or lost at sea. The real death toll could be higher”. By middle of this year, the numbers fleeing Myanmar (and “economic immigrants from Bangladesh”) who died, either drowned or by starvation, exceeded 5,000 and counting. 

A Myanmar official denied the Rohingyas were pushed out: “They decided to go on holidays and to see foreign lands.” 

Brunei Times reported: “Malaysia is the sole hope after Bangladesh, Thailand and Singapore closed their doors to these refugees.” These unfortunate souls have been labelled as “the people whom the world wants to forget”.

I have travelled on the Andaman Sea but have not sailed further north to the Bay of Bengal. Cities and towns in Myanmar where the Rohingyas reside, including Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, and the Ramree and Cheduba islands face the Bay of Bengal. The fleeing victims of the Rakhine mob terror could not have flown to Mergui or Dawei airports or motored down to these areas, which are in the southernmost Myanmar.

So, in their rickety boats, either voluntarily or as trafficking victims, the Rohingyas sailed south from Rakhine state, skirting the sea shores of Myanmar until somewhere between Ko Phra Tong and Ko Tarutao in Thailand. It is some distance from Ko Phra Tong to cross the Isthmus of Kra to Surat Thani. Many might have landed on or near Ko Tarutao and gone on to Hatyai, then into the jungles to the Thai border near Perlis/Wang Kelian. Surprisingly there is Gua (Cave) Wang Burma nearby.

I was in Kangar, Perlis, in May and drove to nearby Wang Kelian. Many have read of the human trafficking of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis. I shall not describe the discovery of graves and battered bodies on both the Thai and Malaysian sides of the border around Wang Kelian. 

I had served in the Kedah/Perlis/ Thai borders in the 1960s as the head of the revenue and preventive branches in the Kedah Utara and Perlis Royal Customs. There were no human traffickers then. But there were many young children carrying rice from Thailand into Padang Besar. From Malaysia, especially around Changloon, we stopped Malaysian rubber seeds from being smuggled into Thailand. Though I was shot at once during an ambush for tobacco contraband just outside Padang Besar, activities then were more on “candu” or opium, and later heroin.

My Customs chief, based in Penang, expressed unhappiness that I had not arrested these child-smugglers. On his visit to Danok, we took him on the red earth road (within Thailand, or “No Man’s Land” then) intending to cross into Sadao. On our way, we saw two children carrying rice bags on their heads. The chief was excited and yelled an order to “tangkap mereka” (arrest them). I restrained him. I reminded him we were in Thai territory and we had no powers. And, within a few seconds, following the children, two Thai soldiers armed with M-16 walked by!

About eight years ago, Malaysia constructed the road between Changloon and Padang Besar. On the Thai side, there is now a four-lane road. There is also a road from Padang Besar to Wang Kelian.

What the chief failed to understand was that our modus operandi was to let these young smugglers deposit the rice in stores on Malaysian territory. Then, we raided the stores and arrested the adult storekeepers, and seized the contraband. 

“The jungle is neutral” (to quote Colonel Freddie Spencer Chapman), dense and dangerous. I was lucky to learn about the jungles on the Thai-Malaya (then) border from my arwah father who, like Chapman, was in Force 136. My father was the game warden for Perlis/Kedah/Penang. Chapman described the ordeal of living in the jungles with animals, leeches and (as described by those who had experienced it) “ghosts”.

So, whatever the Malaysian authorities want to do with reinforcements of police, soldiers and other agencies, I still think the jungles are not friendly to us. There was a Malay Robin Hood who was famous for rice and candu smuggling. I can claim I managed to contain him. He supplied food, rice and other necessities to the villagers around Wang Kelian, Padang Besar and Changloon to keep them from cooperating with the authorities and bought their silence, quite successfully. The same tactic may continue to this day.

The writer is a former judge of the High Courts of Borneo and Malaya

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Rohingya Exodus