TIME Hong Kong

Beijing Warns Hong Kong That Rejected Electoral-Reform Plan Is Only Offer on Table

Pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella as she speaks outside Legislative Council in Hong Kong
Tyrone Siu—Reuters Pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella, symbol of the Occupy Central movement, as she speaks to protesters after a Beijing-backed electoral package was rejected, under Chinese and Hong Kong flags outside Legislative Council in Hong Kong on June 18, 2015

But overruling Hong Kong's own legislature could spark a fresh wave of street protests

Jubilation among Hong Kong’s democratic forces didn’t last long. Less than five hours after local lawmakers rejected Beijing’s plan for how the territory’s next leader will be chosen, China’s official Xinhua News Agency possibly declared the Hong Kong parliamentarians’ veto immaterial. The one-sentence bulletin from Xinhua announced:

BEIJING, June 18 (Xinhua) — Chinese top legislature on Thursday said its decision on Hong Kong’s electoral reforms last August will remain in force in the future, despite Hong Kong Legislative Council’s veto of the universal suffrage motion.

Last year, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s largely rubber-stamp body, approved a plan by which Hong Kong voters could directly elect their next chief executive in 2017. Currently, Hong Kong’s top leader is chosen by a 1,200-strong committee that is seen as sympathetic to Beijing’s interests. There was, however, a catch to the NPC’s proposal: that same 1,200-strong committee would be in charge of choosing which candidates could appear on the ballot. The NPC’s plan galvanized huge street protests in Hong Kong last year — an awakening of political consciousness that surprised even residents of the former British colony. After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the territory was promised 50 years of considerable autonomy from Beijing, under a principle that was dubbed “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s pan-democrat lawmakers opposed Beijing’s new electoral plan as a betrayal of this principle, arguing that a filtering by a pro-Beijing committee hardly constituted “universal suffrage.” Other lawmakers maintained that the proposal was far more democratic than the current system that led to the choosing of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying — and Hong Kong should jump at the opportunity for more self-determination. The Global Times, a Beijing-based daily with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, decried Thursday’s veto from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in an editorial headlined “Sad Moment for Hong Kong[’s] Democratic Process.”

But Xinhua’s brief announcement — which was likely readied even before the vote took place in Hong Kong, according to analysts of China’s state-run media — raised the possibility that the NPC’s judgment trumps whatever legislative exercises might have taken place in a city of 7 million in southern China. “[The central government] cannot ignore the decision of the Legislative Council,” says Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, responding to the Xinhua notice. “Any political reform has to be approved by the Legislative Council, and they should have listened to the voice of the Hong Kong people.”

Emily Lau, a veteran Hong Kong opposition lawmaker, cautions that the Xinhua cable may not necessarily mean that Beijing will force Hong Kong to adhere to a new method of choosing its future leader, rather that no more democratic plan will materialize in the future. “They’re saying … ‘This is the thing on offer, if you want, you can come and take it. If you don’t want, wait a few years, it will be the same thing on offer,’” says Lau. “They should trust the Hong Kong people to choose someone who can work with Beijing. And such a person exists. If Beijing would only give Hong Kong people a chance. But they are too scared.”

With reporting by Alissa Greenberg and Joanna Plucinska / Hong Kong

TIME China

Who Wants a Dream American Home? The Chinese, Of Course

Hongbin Wei
Ted S. Warren—AP Janie Lee, left, a residential specialist with John L. Scott Real Estate, shows a home for sale to her client, Hongbin Wei, of Beijing, China, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014, in Medina, Wash., near Seattle

The West Coast remains a favorite choice for Chinese investors

China’s President Xi Jinping is peddling the notion of a Chinese Dream. Apparently that vision may include a suburban home in California. For the first time ever in percentage terms, Chinese investors snapped up more American residential real estate than any other group of international buyers.

From March 2014 through March 2015, Chinese investors purchased $28.6 billion worth of single-family houses and condominiums in the U.S., according to the National Association of Realtors. Canadians, who had held top spot in percentage terms since 2008, have now been bumped to second place at $11.2 billion, while Indians rounded out the top three at $7.9 billion. In percentage terms, Chinese purchases made up 16% of foreign U.S. home transactions, Canadians 14% and Indians 8%. (The National Association of Realtors lumps together Hong Kong and Taiwan residents with mainland Chinese.)

Only 4% of American homes were bought by foreigners but it is a lucrative market. Non-Americans typically spend nearly double the average American home price of $255,600. Chinese purchasers lay down even more cash — shelling out an average of $831,800 per home. However, due in part to the strengthening U.S. dollar, the overall transaction rate of foreigners buying U.S. homes contracted by 10%, compared with the year before.

Why are Chinese enamored with American property? For one thing, Chinese real estate is so pricey in certain cities that $831,800 for an American manse may look like a good deal. For another, rich Chinese are increasingly looking to move their money and families out of China, either because of economic and political uncertainties or concerns about the social and health environment back home.

A survey released last year by Barclays bank found that nearly half of the 2,000-plus Chinese millionaires it polled planned to move overseas within five years. Last fiscal year, Chinese applicants snapped up every U.S. EB-5 investor visa on offer to them, prompting the American government to suspend the program for that nationality. (EB-5 visas require at least a $500,000 commitment from immigrants, in exchange for an eventual U.S. green card.) Around 300,000 Chinese students now study in the U.S. Still, proximity to China is valued. The National Association of Realtors noted that California was a favored locale for Chinese looking for their dream American home.

TIME China

Spoiled Rich Kid Getting You Down? China’s Communist Party Wants to Help

A rescuer tries to remove a part of a broken fence below a damaged Lamborghini after it collided with a Ferrari inside a tunnel in Beijing
Reuters A rescuer tries to remove a part of a broken fence from a damaged Lamborghini that collided with a Ferrari inside a tunnel in Beijing on April 12, 2015

Bad behavior, of course, is nearly always learned abroad

What’s a Chinese tycoon to do when his spoiled kid crashes a supercar during a late-night drag-racing session or opines in public about the preferred bust size — generous — of a desired mate? (Those are both real-life examples.)

The Chinese Communist Party is out to help. Its United Front Work Department, better known for managing Beijing’s relations with Hong Kong and Taiwan, announced last week that it would lead wayward rich youth toward the correct path of “being patriotic, zealous, innovative, law-abiding, possessing integrity and making contributions.” Last month, China’s President Xi Jinping advised the United Front to “guide people from nonpublic sectors of the economy, especially the young generation.”

It’s unclear how much heed misbehaving Chinese youth will pay to mentors from the Communist Party. Still, there’s no question that the image of China’s fuerdai, or “second-generation rich,” needs an upgrade. As China’s income inequality has widened, their shenanigans — perhaps excused as youthful brio in other societies — have catalyzed widespread disgust. An article on the United Front’s website claimed that “young people are always capricious” and that many wealthy Chinese youngsters “know how to show off their money but do not know how to generate wealth.”

The United Front claims that around 85% of China’s private companies are controlled by families. Over the next five to 10 years, “75% of China’s family businesses will face a succession problem,” according to the Communist Party agency. In other words, China’s spoiled rich kids aren’t just bad for society; they’re bad for business too.

While awaiting the United Front’s code of conduct, the junior gilded set has some alternative courses of action. On June 13, scions from the famously entrepreneurial coastal province of Fujian gathered in Beijing to take a government-run course on traditional virtues, according to the Beijing Youth Daily, which is affiliated with the Communist Youth League.

After being inculcated in values from China’s Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist heritage, these offspring of local tycoons can hopefully avoid such deficiencies as a taste for luxury cars. The Beijing Youth Daily gave an example of one entrepreneur who despaired of his or her son’s addiction to drag-racing fancy autos. Where did the child pick up such a vile habit? While studying overseas. Some 300,000 Chinese students are being educated in the U.S. alone. Hence, as the United Front urged last week, a need to guide the fuerdai’s “ideological development unconsciously” by “enhancing their belief in socialism with Chinese characteristics and enhancing their trust in the party and the government.”

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME Burma

China Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Burma’s Democracy Icon Aung San Suu Kyi

MYANMAR-POLITICS-SUU KYI
SOE THAN WIN—AFP/Getty Images National League for Democracy chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi talks during a press conference at the parliament building in Naypyidaw, Burma, on April 9, 2015

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is scheduled to meet both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang

Shortly after Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her most recent bout of house arrest in 2010, she fielded a surprise visitor at the party headquarters of her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). According to a senior NLD figure who was present at the meeting, the well-wisher was none other than a Chinese diplomatic envoy to Myanmar, as Burma is officially known. “China realized the Lady is powerful, and they wanted to curry favor,” he recalled, referring to Suu Kyi by her feminine sobriquet. “The Chinese, they know how to do this foreign policy business very well indeed.”

On June 10, Suu Kyi landed in Beijing, her first visit to Burma’s largest and most influential neighbor. Although the schedule of her five-day visit has been kept closely guarded, NLD associates say she will also visit Shanghai and Yunnan province, which is on China’s border with Burma’s conflict-ridden northern flank. On the afternoon of June 11, Suu Kyi met with China’s President Xi Jinping and is also scheduled to meet with Premier Li Keqiang, according to the NLD. (Earlier on Thursday she also convened with China’s foreign policy-focused state councilor Yang Jiechi.) That is the kind of all-star line-up usually reserved for major national leaders, not opposition party figures.

But Suu Kyi is no ordinary opposition figure. Although she is constitutionally barred from the Burmese presidency because of rules that seem to have been designed specifically with her in mind, her NLD is expected to prevail in national elections in November. The polls are part of a quasi-democratic transition envisaged by Burma’s military leaders, who still control many levers of power, even if some have shed their army uniforms.

During the long years when Burma languished as a pariah state, shunned by the West because of its appalling human-rights record, China provided financial and moral support. Today, China is still the largest foreign investor in Burma. But its once preeminent position has been challenged as other nations shed sanctions on the regime (and its cronies) and consider doing business in one of the world’s last economic frontiers. Notably, U.S. President Barack Obama has visited Burma twice, and his Administration has held up the country’s reforms as a foreign policy triumph, even as ethnic violence has marred the feel-good narrative.

Burma boasts a treasure trove of natural resources, from jade and hydropower to natural gas and timber. An illegal bounty of opium and other drugs is also primed for export. But China’s involvement in two major projects — the Myitsone Dam in northern Kachin state and the Letpadaung copper mine in central Burma — has rankled the Burmese public. The hydropower project is officially suspended while protests against the mine have been met by violent government intimidation. In 2013, Suu Kyi, who chaired a parliamentary commission investigating the mine project, met with rare local opposition when the panel’s report recommended the mine go ahead despite its social and environmental impact.

China-Burma relations have also been tested by armed conflict in northern Kachin and Shan states between ethnic rebels and the Burmese military, which has sent refugees and missiles across the two nations’ border. (Many of the ethnic minorities who live in northern Burma also have large populations in Yunnan province.) Earlier this year, several Chinese villagers living near the national demarcation were killed by what the Chinese government says was errant Burmese military shelling. While China has officially protested the killing of its citizens, the Burmese government’s reaction has not been fulsome. One Burmese government adviser, who is not authorized to speak to the media, speculates that this is because his bosses believe the Chinese military is providing financial support to some of the ethnic armies battling the Burmese.

On June 10, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called on Burma to answer “relevant requests put in by China, stop the warfare, ease the tension, and restore peace, stability and normal order to the China-Myanmar border area at an early date.” A day later, the official China Daily quoted a Chinese academic who blamed anti-Chinese sentiment in Burma on “lack of knowledge of China and distorted reports of some Western media.”

If Beijing is at all uncomfortable with extending a welcome to one of the world’s most famous democracy activists, the nation’s propaganda machine isn’t saying. (The visit is officially on the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party to the NLD.) In an editorial on Suu Kyi’s tour, China’s official Xinhua news agency offered a fig leaf: “China welcomes anyone with friendly intentions and it bears no grudge for past unpleasantness.”

Still, China Digital Times, which documents Chinese government censorship directives from its base in California, noted that Chinese media were instructed not to report on “the delegation from Myanmar visiting China.” Instead, state media would shape the official narrative on Suu Kyi’s visit. (On Thursday, Burma’s official New Light of Myanmar refrained from covering Suu Kyi’s China trip.)

Meanwhile, human-rights advocates wondered whether Suu Kyi would use her inaugural trip to China to comment on the plight of her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who remains in a Chinese jail for his role in publishing a democracy manifesto. A poet and writer, Liu was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in 2009 for inciting subversion of state power — a common tactic used to silence independent voices in China. But those hoping that Suu Kyi will speak out on behalf of Liu may be disappointed. In a worrying precedent, even as Buddhist persecution of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in western Burma has intensified, Burma’s democracy icon has largely stayed silent.

TIME China

China Shows the World How to Turn a Tragedy Into an Embarrassment

An aerial view shows rescue workers standing on the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star in Jianli
Reuters An aerial view shows rescue workers standing on the sunken cruise ship Eastern Star in Jianli, Hubei province, China, June 4, 2015

The prone Eastern Star may finally have been righted but personal tragedy remains cruelly submerged

If, in the early hours, there was any small affirmation in tragedy, it was this: the squadrons of scuba divers, the implacable cranes, the search-and-rescue teams prying open a ship’s hull were striving ceaselessly to rescue victims of the June 1 cruise ship disaster on the Yangtze River. Few could argue against the efficiency of a one-party state. Amid driving rain and wind, China’s Premier Li Keqiang rushed to the scene, his shirt-sleeves rolled up, the conductor of a sorrowful symphony for the sunken Eastern Star.

Yet, four days on, we are left not in awe of the galvanizing power of autocracy but with aversion to its inelegance. So determined has Beijing been to stage-manage the wake of the storm capsizing — as of the morning of June 5, the confirmed death toll stood at 97, with 14 survivors and hopes rapidly fading for the remainder of the more than 450 passengers and crew — that they have turned a potential PR boon for the Chinese Communist Party into an embarrassment.

Family members of the ferry victims, who have converged on the town of Jianli in China’s central Hubei province, have been warned not to talk to the media. Some have been followed by security personnel, as if their loss somehow makes them suspect. Reuters reported that other relatives in Shanghai, where the tour agency that filled the ship is based, were physically assaulted by uniformed Chinese police.

Many have complained about a lack of information from government sources. Censors are scouring the Internet, even targeting the words “Eastern Star.” Members of the Chinese media have been hushed. Why? “I can’t rule out that even among Chinese journalists there are people who want to smear the government,” Hu Shining, the deputy police chief of Nanjing, the city where the ship embarked on its journey, told family members, according to Reuters.

On June 4, China’s President Xi Jinping convened a special meeting of the nation’s most powerful leadership committee to discuss the tragedy. A statement from the meeting, reported by China’s state news agency Xinhua, called on “local party committees and governments to ‘sincerely understand the families’ grief, carry out appeasement efforts and earnestly safeguard social stability.’”

But grief is messy. It is not “coordinated, scientific and pertinent,” as Premier Li described the equipment being used for the Jianli rescue effort. The families of those lost on the Eastern Star, most of whom were elderly, were not looking to disturb social stability. But now that their bereavement is being treated like criminal activity, how will they proceed?

Other disasters have made unlikely dissidents out of ordinary Chinese. When parents and others protested the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, some were jailed for their troubles. When families of New Year’s Eve revelers, who were trampled to death in Shanghai this past holiday, tried to commemorate their loved ones, police and censors converged. Back then, Chinese media were instructed to stick to state-sanctioned versions of events, a pattern that is being repeated with the Eastern Star sinking.

That has prompted some ferry relatives to speak anonymously to the press or to merely identify themselves by their last name. Yet again, personal tragedy was left submerged under the weight of preserving social stability.

TIME Refugees

Burma’s Nowhere People

rohingya-refugee-crisis-burma-myanmar
James Nachtwey for TIME A Rohingya child is registered at a temporary shelter in Indonesia in May.

Thousands of migrants have fled oppression only to meet death on the seas—or face an uncertain future in refugee camps

There are more than 50 million displaced people in the world today, the most since the end of World War II. Yet few of them have survived the kind of horrific journey that 12-year-old Atahurahman endured.

For 3½ months, he drifted across the Bay of Bengal, which separates India and Southeast Asia, to the Andaman Sea on what can only be described as a modern-day slave ship. The creaking vessel’s hold was retrofitted by human smugglers to carry more than 400 people packed so tightly together, they often sat with their arms cradling their bent knees. Twice-daily meals were limited to a handful of gruel and a few gulps of water. A couple of months into the trip, the captain and other gun-wielding traffickers abandoned ship, leaving the passengers to their fates. Food–even grains of uncooked rice–ran out.

Then began what one International Organization for Migration official described as “maritime ping-pong with human life.” Eager to make landfall in Malaysia, the migrants–a mix of ethnic Rohingya from Burma escaping persecution and Bangladeshis fleeing poverty–headed toward the jungle-choked coastline. But the Malaysian maritime force, under government orders to refuse such boats shelter, pushed the vessel north toward Thailand.

The Thai authorities fixed the boat’s engine and tossed some food and water to the passengers, who by this point were drinking their own urine. But they then towed the boat back to international waters, wanting nothing to do with the despondent human cargo. The cycle repeated itself: back to Malaysia, back to Thailand, back to Malaysia. Eventually an Indonesian helicopter hovered overhead, though that country’s navy initially blocked the boat as well. Three countries were rejecting a trawler filled with starving, dehydrated people, a floating human-rights tragedy.

On May 20, the vessel drifted toward Aceh, an Indonesian province at the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra. There local fishermen finally guided the passengers to safety. A day after he had made landfall, Atahurahman, who is a Rohingya, walked dazed through a temporary camp set up by Acehnese officials. Women and children huddled in an abandoned paper plant, their occasional wails piercing the air. Men sprawled under tents. Medical staff tried to revive the sick, including toddlers with the swollen bellies of prolonged malnutrition. At least 10 others died en route and were thrown overboard, say those who survived the ordeal. “We thought we would die in the sea,” says Atahurahman.

Homeless

If all the uprooted individuals like Atahurahman around the world were to form their own country, they would make up the world’s 29th most populous nation, as big as South Korea. The recent increase in refugees is driven by conflict, especially in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, as well as by economic crisis. Already about 1,800 African and Middle Eastern migrants have perished in the Mediterranean this year, as overloaded boats sank before reaching Europe.

Yet of all the world’s desperate migrants, the Rohingya deserve special sympathy. A Muslim ethnic minority that lives in the west of Burma, known officially as Myanmar, the Rohingya are not simply poor and persecuted by members of the country’s Buddhist majority. They also lack the most fundamental measure of identity: citizenship. About 140,000 Rohingya have been herded by the government into fetid, disease-ridden camps since sectarian tensions with local Buddhists erupted in 2012. That violence, which disproportionately affected the Rohingya, culminated in what Human Rights Watch deemed “ethnic cleansing.” Visiting one such ghetto, a U.N. humanitarian-affairs official said she witnessed a level of suffering “I have personally never seen before.”

At least 200,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, a country even poorer than Burma. The Burmese government maintains that the Rohingya aren’t Burmese at all because they are recently arrived illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, “Bengalis” who have flooded across the border. Yet many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations and used to hold Burmese citizenship before laws changed in 1982. Unable to access normal schools and hospitals because of their official statelessness, Rohingya are also limited in whom they can marry and how many children they can bear. While international advocates as august as the Dalai Lama have rallied to their cause, Burma’s own human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic opposition leader, has declined to strenuously defend them. “The Rohingya have been discriminated against, significantly, and that’s part of the reason they are fleeing,” U.S. President Barack Obama told a group of Southeast Asian students at the White House on June 1.

It’s little wonder then that the Rohingya risk the journey to Muslim-majority Malaysia to endure menial jobs unwanted by locals. (Though cases of rape, torture and execution along the way have been recorded, it’s difficult to corroborate every story each Rohingya tells.) The route from western Burma’s Rakhine (or Arakan) state has taken them aboard rickety boats, often owned by Thais, to the Andaman Sea, then overland through the forests of Thailand into Malaysia. Often the price agreed upon back in Burma (or in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, another point of departure for migrants) changes en route, and the Rohingya, along with an increasing number of Bangladeshis, are imprisoned in camps until family members back home or in Malaysia pay up.

The crisis has spawned a new generation of homeless boat people, the largest in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War sent an estimated 800,000 fleeing communism by sea. Back then, the refugees were housed in camps across Southeast Asia and eventually made their way to new lives as far away as Europe and the U.S. From 2014 through early 2015, 88,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis took to the sea, according to the U.N., with thousands perishing along the way. Some, after paying ransom to the traffickers, have returned to the camps and homes they once fled or have been picked up by the Burmese navy. “These trafficking syndicates have operated for years,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human-rights-focused NGO based in Bangkok. “But the current scale of death and abuse is unprecedented.”

Asia’s boat crisis has highlighted the powerlessness–or, more accurately, the deliberate frailty–of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s pale version of the E.U. While Southeast Asia is gaining economic muscle–the region is the world’s fifth largest economy–its political strength remains stunted. For all the criticism of the E.U.’s failures to save migrants in the Mediterranean, at least Europe has a policy. Hiding behind a commitment to noninterference in its 10 members’ domestic affairs, ASEAN has abdicated responsibility for protecting its most vulnerable residents.

Until May 20, Malaysia and Indonesia both refused official sanctuary to the boats, while Thailand is still shying away from a full welcome. A May 29 summit in Thailand on the boat crisis produced only weak statements–nothing specific about the Burmese authorities’ creating the conditions that have propelled the Rohingya to flee. Indeed, because the Burmese government, which has been applauded for initiating political and economic reform, refuses to acknowledge that such an ethnicity exists, the word Rohingya was excluded from the conference’s paperwork. “The international community has been shameful in its silence,” says Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia. “A slow genocide is happening, and the world looks away.”

Heart of Darkness

As reports by human-rights organizations have piled up, documenting the mistreatment of vulnerable migrants, Thailand and Malaysia have finally begun cracking down on the human-smuggling network that moves and often abuses them. But the results have been grim. In May, Thai authorities uncovered more than 30 migrants’ bodies near the Malaysian border. During another operation last month near the border with Thailand, Malaysian police discovered 139 graves strewn across the limestone hills. The remnants of death were everywhere: a stretcher made of branches used to carry bodies, reams of white cloth used to wrap the deceased in Muslim tradition and empty boxes of 9-mm bullets. Forensic specialists are still exhuming bodies, so the final death toll is not yet known. But the remains are believed to be those of Rohingya and Bangladeshis who perished in jungle camps where they were held hostage while smugglers awaited further payment.

“I am not surprised by the presence of smuggling syndicates,” Malaysian national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told Time while visiting a makeshift police station near the hills riddled with graves. “But the depth of the cruelty, the torture, all this death–that has shocked me.” Some locals, though, are not surprised. One resident, who refused to give his name because of the sensitive nature of human trafficking, recalled seeing emaciated foreigners stumbling down the road near the entrance to a national park. They were wearing sarongs, the women’s heads covered by the kind of loose veils normally worn by Muslims in western Burma and Bangladesh. “We did nothing,” the villager says. “God help us for looking away.”

Shanu Binti Abdul Hussain says she, her three children and her brother-in-law–all Rohingya from western Burma–were imprisoned in a camp on the Thai side of the border for more than a month late last year. They were released only when her husband Mohamed Rafiq, who was already working in Malaysia’s Penang state, was able to meet a $4,150 ransom. “I thought, What if the money was too late?” he recalls. “What if one of my children has died?” The family now shares a house with five others in Penang, each household limited to a single room. Mohamed Rahman, the eldest son, 12, works bagging rice and onions for a grocer for $6 a day. He does not go to school.

It’s hard to imagine that human traffickers could have operated in border areas for so many years without official complicity. In May the mayor and deputy mayor of the Thai border town of Padang Besar were arrested in connection with the trade; on June 3 a senior Thai army officer surrendered to face charges linked to alleged human trafficking. As part of their crackdown, Malaysian police have detained two policemen. A Bangladeshi report published in local newspapers last month accused 24 police officers in Cox’s Bazar, the coastal area from which smugglers’ boats often launch, of complicity in trafficking. Shaidah, a Rohingya whose neighborhood in Burma was razed in 2012, spent three months living in a tent in a 200-person jungle camp in Thailand. When she trekked into Malaysia, she remembers uniformed men hustling her across the border.

New Beginnings

Despite the life-and-death risks, Asia’s human-trafficking trade will continue for the same reason illegal migration is on the rise globally–the market is simply too lucrative, and migrants are too desperate. Some aren’t even going voluntarily–Atahurahman and nine other boys on the ship that landed in Aceh on May 20 say they were kidnapped by traffickers trying to maximize profits by filling their boats before they set sail, collecting ransom during the journey.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina, has dismissed migrants from her country as “mentally sick.” The blame seems misplaced. Bangladeshi police say 300 or so human traffickers nationwide prey on unemployed youth and schoolboys by promising free passage to Southeast Asia, only to hold them for ransom later on. Besides, about 40% of Bangladeshis live on less than $1.25 a day. Is it really crazy to crave a better life abroad? The Rohingya have it even worse, although the U.S. has promised to resettle some refugees, as have the Philippines and, curiously, the tiny West African country of Gambia, whose citizens are themselves braving Mediterranean voyages to reach Europe.

Complicating the fate of the refugees is the difficulty of documenting exactly what has happened to them. Many of the Rohingya who made it to Aceh, after months at sea, told the same story to TIME about why they left Burma: villages burned, women raped, brothers or nephews or uncles or fathers killed. While the mistreatment of the Rohingya in Burma is well established, the sameness in their narratives is hard to evaluate. Did atrocities committed against their families force them onto the traffickers’ boats? Or were they coached to give similar stories in order to better their chances of getting refugee status–something that is known to happen?

At one of the Aceh camps, Atahurahman tells, unblinkingly, how his father was shot by Burmese police while they were confined to a camp. Yet the boy’s uncle, who lives in Malaysia, maintains that Atahurahman’s father died of heart disease after not being able to get to the hospital from the Rohingya ghetto. Which is the truth? Many of the Rohingya have no idea what day they left Burma or, indeed, what day it is now. They are illiterate and traumatized. After spending years wasting away in some of the world’s most squalid conditions, they face uncertain futures in temporary camps granted by foreign governments. Yet they had the strength to cross an ocean in search of a new life.

Atahurahman, though, has another ambition. “I want to see my mother again,” he says, blinking back tears. “I miss her very much.”

–WITH REPORTING BY MUKTITA SUHARTONO/ACEH, INDONESIA, AND FARID HOSSAIN/DHAKA, BANGLADESHN

Read next: What You Need to Know About the E.U.’s Refugee Crisis


This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME portfolio

The Plight of the Rohingya by James Nachtwey

More Rohingya are embarking on perilous journeys to Thailand and Malaysia

For decades, TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey has used his camera to give form to the invisible. Yet in a world filled with persecuted people hidden in isolated corners of the globe, the Rohingya stand out. A Muslim minority from western Burma, the 1.3 million-strong Rohingya have been denied the most basic of human rights: citizenship. Their sense of self has been lost.

Since sectarian tensions erupted in 2012, roughly 140,000 Rohingya have been herded into camps by the Burmese government, which has allowed a virulent Buddhist nationalist movement to germinate. Last year, Nachtwey spent time in these Rohingya ghettos, where conditions were among the worst he had witnessed — and this from a photographer who has worked in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East.

With limitations on their lives increasing with each month — in May, Burmese President Thein Sein signed a population-control law that could be used to restrict the number of children Rohingya bear — Rohingya have been boarding rickety boats in hopes of eventually landing in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation where they take menial jobs. Over the last year or so, around 90,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, who also hope for better economic prospects, have embarked on perilous journeys that take them across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia. Often, the price agreed upon for the feat of human-smuggling rises once the migrants stumble into the jungle encampments. Unless family members pay up, the Rohingya and Bangladeshis face possible starvation, disease and even execution by the traffickers.

With Thailand and Malaysia finally cracking down on the trade, the human-smuggling trawlers — slave ships, really — have turned into floating prisons, as the normal trade routes are disrupted and captains abandon their boats. Thousands may still be stuck at sea. Meanwhile, on land, authorities have found more than 150 graves of suspected migrants, near abandoned jungle camps. Police and government officials have been detained for their part in the trafficking trade.

In May, Nachtwey traveled to three countries — Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — to document the plight of Asia’s newest boat people. In Malaysia, he trekked through jungle to observe bodies being pulled out of the earth, near encampments with bamboo cages used to confine migrants. At a temporary refugee camp in Indonesia’s Aceh province, he captured an equally affecting scene: Rohingya who had spent more than three months at sea, starving and forced to drink their own urine, patiently lined up just a day after they had come ashore. One by one, they stood in front of an Indonesian photographer, who documented their names, ages and addresses — Burma was listed as their country of origin — on a whiteboard. Long unable to claim any real identity, the Rohingya were finally being given a chance at self-expression. As always, Nachtwey was there to bear witness.

Hannah Beech is TIME’s East Asia Bureau Chief and traveled with Nachtwey to report on the plight of the Rohingya.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

TIME Malaysia

Rohingya Survivors Speak of Their Ordeals as 139 Suspected Graves Are Found in Malaysia

Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIME Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Burma's persecuted Muslim minority takes unspeakable risks into order to flee to Malaysia

Less than a kilometer from Malaysia’s border with Thailand, the trappings of death are littered across the jungle: a stretcher made of branches to carry bodies, reams of white cloth used to wrap the deceased in Muslim tradition and, most menacing of all, empty boxes for 9-mm bullets.

On May 25, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, confirmed that there were at least 139 suspected graves strewn across the Perlis range of hills that rise from Malaysia into Thailand, in the vicinity of nearly 30 abandoned camps. How many bodies each possible grave contains is not yet clear, nor is it known how the people may have died. But these remains are believed to be a grim by-product of the human-smuggling trade that for years has transported persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma, as well as, increasingly, Bangladeshis desperate to escape poverty back home.

For years, desperate individuals have boarded rickety boats to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, then trekked through Thailand’s southern jungles to their ultimate destination: Malaysia. But with the smuggling routes through Thailand into Malaysia disrupted by police investigations, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis are thought by the U.N. to be stuck at sea, as traffickers figure out how to salvage their human cargo and captains abandon the boats for fear of the official crackdown.

Around 3,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have managed to land in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, after months at sea. With Southeast Asian governments at first unwilling to take them in, the boats — their holds packed with hundreds of people, like modern-day slave ships — floated between different national waters in what the U.N. described as “human ping pong.” Only last week did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia officially agree to offer shelter.

For now, the suspected graves in northern Malaysia’s Perlis state are marked with lone branches, the earth covered by a scattering of oversized rainforest leaves. On Tuesday, forensic teams — including one that recently returned from Ukraine, the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet — began sifting through the soil to recover bodies. It is a process that forensic analysts gathered at a makeshift police encampment in Wang Kelian, a few kilometers from the hill-top burial grounds, say will take weeks, if not months.

Only one body was discovered above ground. It was found in a wooden holding pen, the lower part wrapped in the sarong that is commonly worn in Burma and parts of Bangladesh. So badly decomposed was the body that forensic investigators removed it from the site in five separate bags.

An abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIMEAn abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Malaysia’s suspected burial ground is not the first to be discovered along the porous border with Thailand. Earlier this month, 33 bodies were unearthed in Thailand, less than 500 m from some of the Malaysian suspected graves on the opposite side. Initial police reports indicated that the cause of death for most of the bodies found in Thailand was either starvation or disease. Often, according to TIME interviews with more than 20 Rohingya who have taken the same trafficking route through Thailand into Malaysia, the agreed-upon price for the journey is jettisoned once the victims reach the jungle camps on the border. There, they are essentially held to ransom until family members either back home or in Malaysia pay much higher sums. Food is scarce and beatings common, say survivors.

Shanu binti Abdul Hussain says she, her three small children and her brother-in-law were imprisoned in a camp of the Thai side of the border for 26 days in December before her husband, who was already working in Malaysia’s Penang state, was able to meet a $4,150 ransom. (The family originally was told the voyage would cost one-third the price.) Her husband, Mohamed Rafiq, was given a Malaysian bank account number and sent the money through a cash-deposit machine in Penang. “Waiting after I sent the money was the hardest part,” he says. “I thought, what if the money was too late? What if one of my children has died?”

Since beginning their operation on May 11, Malaysian police have found a network of 28 camps deep in the Perlis jungle, one of which North Brigade police officer Mohd. Salen bin Mohd. Hussain estimates was abandoned just one week before it was discovered. Police believe one camp held 300 people, while others are far smaller. Crude holding pens girded by saplings hint at forced confinement, as does a coil of metal chains. Sentry tree houses poke through the foliage. “I am not surprised by the presence of smuggling syndicates,” Malaysian national police chief Khalid tells TIME. “But the depth of the cruelty, the torture, all this death, that has shocked me.”

This year, Malaysian police say they have arrested 37 people in connection with human smuggling, including two policemen from the state of Penang. In 2014, 66 people were charged in connection with the trade. But for human traffickers to have operated in border areas with such impunity for so many years — no matter how thick the foliage may be — it’s hard to imagine a complete lack of official complicity. Earlier this month, the mayor and deputy mayor of the Thai border town Padang Besar were arrested. Other local officials in Thailand have been detained.

Yet the trade has been going on for years, with the number of Rohingya fleeing Burma (officially known as Myanmar) escalating after Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Rakhine (or Arakan) state exploded in 2012, with the stateless Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of this Muslim minority are believed to have died, and around 140,000 have been herded into camps, where disease stalks a vulnerable population. Bereft of their homes and land, many Rohingya see opportunity in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, no matter how hard the journey. Others allege they were kidnapped onto trafficking boats, as the smugglers struggle to find enough people to fill their holds. The traffickers are also targeting Bangladeshis from across the border with Burma; they, unlike the Rohingya, have little hope of ever gaining refugee status in Southeast Asia.

So far, Malaysian police have been combing a 50-km stretch of the Perlis jungle. What else will be found in the coming days? Locals speak of ghosts up in the hills by the Thai border. “I thought I would die,” says Dilarah, a Rohingya, of her 38-day journey from western Burma, through the camps on the Thai-Malaysian border. She is 6 years old.

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