TIME Sri Lanka

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen
Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka. TIME

Saffron-clad monks have been instrumental in anti-Muslim riots in Burma and Sri Lanka, and have their eyes on sowing discord farther afield

During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.”

Touring her scorched neighborhood, the bevy of gutted buildings and roofless homes indicates Sahabdeen actually fared better than many. Three people died in the violence, all Muslims shot by police shepherding a 7,000-strong mob, claim locals, while another two people had legs amputated after receiving gunshot wounds. At least 80 more were injured.

What sparked this bloodletting between two communities with virtually no historical grievances? Throughout the ashes of Dharga Town, scrawled graffiti reading “BBS Did This” leaves little doubt where the victims lay blame.

BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, otherwise known as Buddhist Power Force, is a Buddhist supremacist group accused of stirring sectarian hatred in Sri Lanka. Led by a monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, BBS accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims of threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity, and enjoys support at high levels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who also serves as Secretary of Defense, has been an outspoken supporter of BBS in the past.

“BBS echoes the sympathies and the prejudices of the majority Buddhist population,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO. “So the views have a certain resonance, and the media gives voice to that, and the counter view is toned down or even censored.”

The June 15 violence was sparked by an innocuous traffic dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist monk. Immediately afterward, Buddhist extremists descended on the monk and urged him to report the matter to the authorities. When the police declined to take action, a rally was organized. Gnanasara was there, addressing the mob. “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person — let alone a monk — it will be the end of all of them!” he bellowed to raucous cheers. When the mob approached Muslim-majority Dharga Town, some people started throwing stones. This was all the provocation needed for a night of bedlam. In the aftermath of the riots, 135 people were arrested, say officials. To date, no one has been charged.

Gnanasara denies that BBS organized the march and blames the “uncontrolled behavior of some of the extreme Muslim communities in the area” for the ensuing bloodshed during a phone interview with TIME. But even before his firebrand oration, portents of trouble were clear; on the Facebook post to announce the gathering, one of the first comments asked, “Shall I bring a can of gasoline?”

So why is Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million that for three decades was decimated by a vicious civil war between the Buddhist state and largely Hindu Tamil minority, suddenly gripped by anti-Muslim hatred? Historically, the island’s Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces.

“Prejudices are growing because there is a small but influential group of extremist Buddhists who are having a relatively free run and are able to articulate very national sentiments and highlight the insecurity of the Sinhalese,” says Perera, himself a Sinhalese Christian.

The Sri Lankan experience is far from unique. In Burma, officially known as Myanmar, just 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the Bay of Bengal, an extremist Buddhist movement called 969 is waging a parallel war, using identical tactics as BBS. (Both groups rose to prominence around 2012. Its leader is also a monk, Wirathu. When anti-Muslim riots erupted in the central Burmese town of Meiktila in April last year, clashes that killed dozens and displaced thousands, he arrived in the middle of the carnage, although later claimed to have tried to halt the bloodshed. Then, during last month’s communal riots in Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is based, he fanned the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists.

Both he and Gnanasara make virtually identical xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into unholy polygamous unions, and using their corrupt business acumen to swindle hard-working Buddhists. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told TIME’s Hannah Beech last year. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” (In fact, neither Burma nor Sri Lanka has seen a Muslim population explosion).

BBS speeches are very similar. Halal certification is apparently funding al-Qaeda and Hamas; Islamic blood sacrifices are summoning forth “ghosts and demons”; Muslim perverts are using burqas as disguises to carry out licentious deeds; and, most bizarrely, the Quran requires Muslims to spit three times into any food or beverage served to a person of another faith.

“I think they are learning from each other,” says Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “It started in Myanmar, but Gnanasara has perfected it.”

Certainly, the similarities between these nations are striking. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities making up about 70% to 80% of the population. Both nations have Muslim communities, of about 10% of the population, that historically backed the establishment. Both are going through the aftermath of decades-long civil conflicts against other ethnic minorities — the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; a smattering of mainly Christian rebel groups in Burma. Now both boast extremist Buddhist movements led by rabble-rousing saffron-clad clerics.

Gnanasara is quick to laud his Burmese counterpart and admits the pair met over the summer to “establish an international network of activists stationed in Buddhist countries.”

“We are all in the same boat in terms of attacks on Buddhist communities,” he says. “What is happening in Burma and Thailand, especially the southern part of Thailand, [resembles] what happened recently in Bangladesh.”

BBS and 969 are embarking on a partnership with similar organizations and activists across the region to face off “international threats,” reveals Gnanasara. “It would be better to have some sort of cohesion between us so we can respond collectively.”

Gnanasara maintains he did not “discuss any tactics” during his meeting with Wirathu, yet a shared modus operandi is obvious. The Burmese incidents, just like the Aluthgama clashes and hundreds of others, were sparked by a personal grievance between a Muslim and Buddhist — an argument between shopkeeper and customer over gold rings in Meiktila; an allegation of rape in Mandalay that the accuser eventually admitted was a total fabrication — that quickly spiraled out of control. After the initial complaint, an extremist clique descends on the town to aid the “wronged” Buddhist party. Before long there are lootings, beatings and torched houses.

Now that existentialist threats to Sri Lanka and Burma have disappeared with the end of their respective civil conflicts, the specter of Muslim extremism is convenient means of justifying political control.

“It’s in this government’s narrow political interests of winning elections to foster the divide, to foster Sinhala nationalism,” says Perera. Hilmy agrees: “We feel that it’s likely to be government-orchestrated as the government has lost the confidence of the minorities. The Tamils and Christians are completely alienated.”

Sahabdeen, for one, needs no convincing. When hundreds of young men ripped her home apart, the security services stood idly by, just a block away. Eventually, two rioters escorted her toward these officers before returning, unhindered, to resume their plunder. “They took me out the gate as if I was being walked to the gallows,” she says. “The police just stood there.”

Ironically, while the reality of creeping Islamization is almost certainly bogus, the perceived threat may be instrumental in fomenting its creation. “Muslims don’t have any option but to live here and die here, and so I’m very worried if Muslims are pushed beyond a certain point forces from outside could exploit that,” says Hilmy.

If that happens, Sri Lanka and Burma could head straight back toward a fresh round of civil conflict.

TIME Burma

Burmese Journalists Sentenced to a Decade in Prison With Hard Labor

Myanmar Journalist Protest
Burmese journalists hold banners as they protest for press freedom outside the office of the Daily Eleven newspaper in Rangoon on Jan. 7, 2014. Khin Maung Win—AP

Five journalists were handed astonishingly harsh sentences for reporting about an alleged chemical-weapons plant in the central part of the country

Burma may no longer be a pariah state, but its courts have shown that the government’s authoritarian tendencies are alive and well.

On Thursday, a court in Pakokku Township sentenced the CEO of the Unity Weekly current-affairs magazine, and four of its reporters, to a decade in prison with hard labor for publishing an article earlier this year about the possible existence of a chemical-weapons factory in central Burma.

“This is blatant bullying of media workers by the government’s judicial and executive sectors,” Unity reporter Lu Maw Naing told Burmese broadcaster DVB Multimedia as policemen hustled him out of the courthouse.

Following the publication of the article in January, the government cracked down hard on the periodical. It was hit with a lawsuit by the President’s Office, issues of the magazine were seized and reporters were arrested. The journal was soon shuttered as financial pressures mounted.

While the government has confirmed the existence of the factory, Naypyidaw says it is for standard munitions and denies allegations that chemical weapons are being produced on the grounds. The claims are impossible to independently verify because Burma is a not signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The former generals at the country’s helm remain sensitive about reporting on weapons programs launched by the former junta. Despite the easing of a smattering of sanctions against Burma in the past two years, several nations, including the U.S., have refused to drop sanctions that target members of the country’s shady military.

Thursday’s ruling is the latest in a series of developments that belie Burma’s reformist narrative. Opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi remains barred from holding the country’s highest office, the internal peace process is stagnating and the rise of Buddhist nationalism has ripped massive holes in the diverse country’s delicate social fabric.

In addition, the fourth estate now appears to be firmly in the government’s crosshairs. In the past year, reporters from DVB and Eleven Media have been jailed, and in May the government deported a foreign journalist for covering a press-freedom rally. The palpable optimism that wafted over the nation three years ago is waning rapidly.

“I think [this case] shows the true colors of this government,” Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy news magazine, tells TIME. “It’s a real reminder of the old days under the previous repressive regime.”

During a radio address to the nation earlier this month, President Thein Sein boasted that Burma’s media environment was one of the freest in Southeast Asia. However, he added the caveat that journalists who undermine “national security” would be punished.

“[If] media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, I want to warn all that we will take effective action under existing laws,” said Thein Sein, according to a state-run publication.

Just a week later, the threat became reality for the reporters of Unity Weekly. The administration relied on the colonial-era Official Secrets Act to wallop the journalists rather than prosecuting them through newly passed media legislation.

“The authorities are clearly shifting from rule of law to rule by law,” says Benjamin Ismail, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk.

“They are just trying to justify their censorship and repression of the press by showing the international community that legal procedures are followed and everything is normal.”

Editors on the ground say the financially ruinous lawsuit launched against Unity is part of the government’s elaborate strategy to silence dissent. With myriad publications struggling to keep their head above the water in the impoverished country, any legal action could prove disastrous.

“There’s a clear glass ceiling from the owners or the business side,” says Toe Zaw Latt, DVB’s Burma bureau chief. “Once there is trouble, of course you lose money.”

Harassment of editors also appears to be on the rise. In the past two weeks, numerous press offices have reportedly been party to unannounced visits from officers from the military’s special branch.

“They come to our office and other media offices asking petty questions: ‘How are you making money?’ ‘Are you making a lot of business?’ ‘Are you making a profit?’” says Aung Zaw. “It’s clearly intimidation.”

TIME southeast asia

Elephants Are Tortured and Trafficked to Entertain Tourists in Thailand

An elephant lifts a tourist during a show in Pattaya, Thailand on March 1, 2013.
An elephant lifts a tourist during a show in Pattaya, Thailand on March 1, 2013. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images

That obligatory elephant ride and selfie relies on a bloody trade in tormented animals

Wild elephants are being captured in Burma and mentally broken through savage beatings as traffickers seek to profit from a lucrative trade to Thai tourist parks, claims a new report.

According to wildlife-advocacy group TRAFFIC, poachers in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, corral elephants into jungle pits, after which older animals are slaughtered and the more valuable young ones tortured into submission before being trafficked over the porous border to entertain tourists vacationing in the self-styled Land of Smiles. (Formerly, elephants in Burma might have been put to work in the logging industry, but recent curbs have put this trade under threat.)

Sangduen Chailert, popularly known as Lek, has worked in elephant conservation in her native northern Thailand for 20 years. “When they catch a wild baby elephant, some [poachers] told me that in the jungle it’s like a killing field,” she tells TIME. “To take one baby they must kill the mother and the aunties, and it is very risky for the baby as it’s difficult for them to survive without their mothers.”

Thailand vowed to clamp down on the trade in February 2012, yet as elephants can be registered and microchipped anytime up to the age of 4, there is ample opportunity for young trafficked animals to be passed off as locally reared.

“There are gaping holes in the current legislation, which do little to deter unscrupulous operators passing off wild-caught young animals as being of captive origin and falsifying birth and ownership documentation,” said Joanna Cary-Elwes, campaigns manager for Elephant Family.

Healthy young elephants typically fetch more than $30,000 in Thailand, according to TRAFFIC. Venal officials often facilitate their illicit movement across Southeast Asia, even shipping them as far as China or South Korea after giving the animals new identities in Laos.

Lek, who was named one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, says educating tourists is vital to combat the trade at the source. Some 6,500 elephants currently live in Thailand, around 2,500 of which are wild-caught.

“Tourists want to see the elephants painting and doing lots of things, especially riding,” she says, but “tourism work is actually the most disturbing to the elephant” as “when logging they only work for part of the year.”

The TRAFFIC study says up to 81 live elephants were illegally captured for sale to the Thai tourist industry between 2011 and 2013. Lax implementation of current antitrafficking provisions means the current plod across the mountainous Thai-Burmese frontier may soon become a stampede once again.

“Unless urgent changes are made to outdated legislation and better systems are introduced to document the origin of elephants in tourist camps and other locations across Thailand, things could quickly revert to their previous unacceptable state,” says Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s regional director for Southeast Asia.

TIME Burma

Once Again, Racial Tensions in Burma Turn Deadly

Police officers guard a Muslim residential area in Mandalay
Police officers guard a Muslim residential area in Mandalay July 3, 2014. Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Buddhist gangs, including monks, attacked Muslim-owned businesses and a mosque, in violence that has left two dead

A police curfew has helped restore calm to Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, following mob violence between local Buddhists and Muslims that has so far claimed two lives and left more than a dozen injured.

Rioting was sparked Tuesday evening when Buddhist gangs — including monks — attacked Muslim-owned businesses, cars and a mosque with bricks and make-shift weapons, apparently enraged by the rape of a Buddhist woman allegedly by two Muslim owners of a teashop.

“Two men were killed” in overnight attacks into Thursday, Zaw Min Oo, a senior police officer in Mandalay, confirmed to AFP.

One victim, a 30-year-old Buddhist man named Tun Tun, was hacked to death with a sword, according to local officials, while a Muslim man, Soe Min Htway, was apparently killed in retaliation while traveling to dawn prayers. Around 400 local police were deployed Thursday to keep the peace and rubber bullets were reported fired.

Five Muslims were reportedly arrested Friday after security officials searched their homes and found knives. “Police definitely know these are used for ceremonial purposes,” Ossaman, an imam at Mandalay’s largest mosque, told Reuters. “They were not breaking any law.”

Mandalay is the home of extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu and has long been a hub of simmering inter-religious tensions; the controversial cleric appears to have been instrumental is spreading the rape rumors that led to the latest violence via his Facebook page.

On Thursday, he warned of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists, reports the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Sporadic violence between Buddhists and Muslims has convulsed Burma for over two years now, as the former pariah nation emerges from a half-century of brutal military dictatorship. More than 240 people have been killed and at least 140,000 displaced, most of them Rohingya — a heavily persecuted Muslim group largely denied citizenship.

Buddhist depictions of Muslims as sexual predators are commonplace, spurring the sectarian bloodletting; when the most recent spell of violence erupted in June 2012, it was in response to the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl in western Arakan state blamed on three Muslim men.

Extremist rhetoric frequently portrays Muslim men as being hungry for multiple Buddhist wives, forcing them to convert. The prejudice has spurred the introduction of a monk-championed interfaith marriage ban bill, which is currently before parliament.

While official figures state that only four percent of Burma’s 60 million people are Muslim, independent observers put the true as figure significantly higher.

Meanwhile on Wednesday senior Buddhist clergy claimed that all monks present during the Mandalay riots were there as peacemakers. “We are holding a press conference to clarify that the monks were not involved,” Galone Ni Sayadaw, of the All Burma Monks Union-Upper Burma, told assembled media.

Burmese President Thein Sein used a radio address Thursday to call for stability without specifically mentioning the Mandalay turmoil. “For reforms to be successful, I would like to urge all to avoid instigation and behavior that incites hatred in our fellow citizens,” said the former junta general.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who has now been elected to parliament, has faced international censure for her reticence regarding ongoing sectarian violence, but briefly addressed the subject during an interview with Radio Free Asia.

“The authorities should properly handle those people who are spreading rumors,” she said. “Without rule of law, more riots will come.”

TIME southeast asia

A Young Girl Kept as a Slave for 5 Years in Thailand Wins Landmark Damages

Illegal Myanmar Immigrants Make Living In Rubbish Field in Thailand
An illegal-immigrant boy from Burma works at mountains of rubbish in Mae Sot, Thailand, on July 18, 2013 The Asahi Shimbun—Getty Images

Sold as a 7-year-old, she keeps the spotlight on the dangers faced by the estimated 4 million migrant workers in Thailand

A 13-year-old Burmese girl who was tortured for five years by a Thai couple who treated her as a slave has finally been awarded $143,000 in compensation by a local court, ending one nightmare but throwing the spotlight on the plight of countless other vulnerable migrants who suffer similar abuse.

The victim, who was just 7 years old when she was sold into slavery, must live with horrendous scars over half her body after she was regularly drenched with pots of boiling water for perceived disobedience. (The extent of her disfigurement can be seen on this Thai news report, but be warned — the images are distressing.)

The girl, an ethnic Karen known as Air, says she was kidnapped while her illegal-migrant parents were working in sugarcane fields in northwest Thailand. She was then sold to a Thai couple who made her work as a maid and sleep in a dog kennel. Air says she escaped once and summoned the police, only to be returned to her abusers, who allegedly cut off the tip of her ear as punishment. The girl eventually escaped successfully on Jan. 31 last year.

“The couple is still at large, but lawyers will investigate all of the employers’ properties to compensate her,” Preeda Tongchumnum, the assistant to the secretary general of the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation, told the Irrawaddy. “She cannot make a 100% recovery, but the doctor will help her to move her body like any other person.”

Although Monday’s award must be deemed a victory of sorts, the uncomfortable truth remains that the girl’s plight mirrors that of many of the estimated 4 million migrant workers in Thailand, who toil with virtually no legal safeguards and are often exploited by venal officials.

Compounding matters, the couple accused of torturing Air — identified as Nathee Taengorn, 36, and Rattanakorn Piyavoratharm, 34 — skipped town after they were inexplicably released on police bail despite facing seven serious charges. Local media reports alleged the pair had “influential” connections. The police have yet to offer an explanation for Air’s claim that they returned her to her captors after her first escape bid.

Such official indifference to the plight of migrant labor has contributed to the U.S. State Department’s decision last month to relegate Thailand to the lowest rank of its Trafficking in Persons report — putting the self-styled “Land of Smiles” on par with North Korea for its inability or unwillingness to protect workers from abuse.

“There cannot be impunity for those who traffic in human beings,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to mark the report’s release. “Whether it is a young girl trapped in a brothel or a woman enslaved as a domestic worker or a boy forced to sell himself on the street or a man abused on a fishing boat, the victims of these crimes all have names, all had families.”

Sadly, all four of the examples citied by Kerry are commonplace in Thailand, which has long been a hub for migrant laborers fleeing war, poverty or political persecution in less affluent neighboring countries. The Thai fishing industry has come into particular scrutiny recently.

This already dire situation has been further complicated by Thailand’s military coup on May 22. Fears of a crackdown prompted an exodus of more than 250,000 mainly Cambodian workers, although the junta insists that by requiring all companies to “submit comprehensive name lists of their employees” it is now working to prevent “illegal activity, drugs, crime, unfair employment and bodily harm.”

Such assurances have not convinced human-rights activists, though. “Migrant workers make huge contributions to Thailand’s economy, but their daily life is unsafe and uncertain, and they face abuses from many quarters,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, calling for the junta to “reverse this [exodus] disaster by quickly putting into place genuine reforms that would protect migrant workers’ rights, not threaten them.”

TIME Burma

These Aren’t Refugee Camps, They’re Concentration Camps, and People Are Dying in Them

Rohingya Refugees Face Health Crisis As Myanmar
Rosheda Bagoung holds her malnourished child inside the tent at the Dar Paing refugee camp in Sittwe, Burma, on May 10, 2014 Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Confined to squalid camps, supposedly for their own "protection," Burma's persecuted Rohingya are slowly succumbing to starvation, despair and disease. Some are calling it a crime against humanity

Several days before he was born, Mohammad Johar’s family escaped the Buddhist mobs that attacked their Muslim neighborhood, leaving bodies and burned homes in their wake. The threat of renewed violence has since kept the family and tens of thousands of fellow ethnic Rohingya confined to a wasteland of camps, ringed by armed guards, outside this coastal town in western Burma. But enforced confinement has spawned more insidious dangers. Last week, 2-year-old Mohammad Johar died of diarrhea and other complications, contracted in a camp that state authorities claim was made to safeguard him. The local medical clinic was empty and the nearest hospital too far — perhaps impossible to reach, given that his family would have to secure permission to go outside the wire. “Only in death will he be free,” sighed his 18-year-old brother, Nabih, moments after wrapping the toddler’s body in a cotton shroud.

Two years after the outbreak of communal violence, a deepening humanitarian crisis is claiming more lives by the day. Malnutrition and waterborne illnesses in the camps, aggravated by the eviction of aid groups and onset of monsoon rains, have led to a surge of deaths that are easily preventable. In a country that’s still being hailed in the West for its tilt toward democracy, the ongoing blockade on critical aid to more than 100,000 displaced Rohingya around Sittwe — and thousands elsewhere in Rakhine state — amounts to a crime against humanity, rights groups say.

For years, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Burma, and have faced severe restrictions on marriage, employment, health care and education. Now, it seems, the Burmese authorities are determined to starve and sicken the Rohingya out of existence.

“Aid is still being obstructed by the authorities in a variety of ways, and this appears to be symptomatic of the shared feeling among government officials at all levels that the Rohingya don’t belong in Rakhine state,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based group that released a February report highlighting long-standing government policies targeting the ethnic minority. “The increasingly permanent segregation of the Rohingya is wholly inconsistent with the dominant narrative that democracy is sweeping the nation. The Rohingya are facing something greater than persecution — they’re facing existential threats.”

The vice grip shows no signs of loosening. Construction is now under way for a sprawling, walled-off police base inside the camp’s perimeter. Doctors Without Borders, the international aid agency that was evicted by the government in February, has not been allowed back. Although some foreign aid groups have resumed operations since late March, when radical Buddhists ransacked more than a dozen offices, the U.N. says much more should be done. The World Food Programme continues to provide rations of rice, chickpeas, oil and salt, but aid workers insist they are not enough to stem the gathering problem of acute malnutrition. Indeed, several interned Rohingya tell TIME they were brutally beaten by Burmese security forces in recent weeks for attempting to supplement their diet by fishing beyond the boundaries of the camps.

Burma’s government refuses to recognize its 1.3 million Rohingya as citizens. Though Rohingya have lived in the Buddhist-majority country for generations, they are widely, and affectedly, referred to as Bengalis, to convey the false impression that they are intruders from neighboring Bangladesh. “There is no such thing as ‘Rohingya,'” insists U Pynya Sa Mi, the head of a monastery in Sittwe. “The Rakhine people are simply defending their land against immigrants who are creating problems.”

Burmese officials downplay the health crisis, noting provisions of water and medical services. But the misery in the camps tells another story. Just off the road that leads inside, naked children with extended bellies loiter near a makeshift clinic that serves hundreds of families living in tarp-and-sheet-metal barracks. A line of mothers awaits the attention of Chit San Win, a former nurse who, out of necessity, has become a mobile doctor to the displaced. He sees an average of 40 patients a day and says conditions have become “much worse” since Doctors Without Borders was ousted, citing the dearth of government services and supplies. A 1-year-old boy under his care coughs with symptoms of tuberculosis, a growing scourge due to a lack of vaccinations. HIV and malaria are also a concern. However, without a lab to run tests or international aid agencies to provide hospital referrals, he’s left giving out hopeful assurances and second-rate medicine. “I do what I can,” says Chit San Win.

While the death toll is not clear because of the restrictions against aid groups, desperate conditions have driven scores of Rohingya to risk their lives at sea on boats bound for Thailand and Malaysia. Originally, traffickers packed dozens of refugees onto rickety craft that often sank. These days, the smaller boats ferry travelers to larger vessels that come up from the Burma-Thailand border; once full, with 300 to 500 passengers, they set off on the three-day voyage to Thailand. On arrival, the Rohingya must pay $2,000 to traffickers who brought them. If they fail to pay up, they may be imprisoned in jungle camps for ransom or sold into debt bondage. Those caught by the authorities hardly fare better: the Thais corral them in grim detention centers, where they fester as officials wait for a third country to take them.

Abul Bassier, a 36-year-old schoolteacher whose brother and father were killed when a mob razed their home in Sittwe’s Bu May quarter, says his younger brother took his chances on a boat trip in March. About two weeks later, Abul Bassier received a phone call from a man in Thailand demanding money for his brother’s release. With six children of his own to look after and no freedom to work, he is overcome by his own helplessness. “What can I do here, a prisoner with no rights, no humanity?” he exclaims, breaking into tears. Each time Abul Bassier calls the number stored on his cell phone, he says a Thai man asks whether he has the money, then hangs up when the invariably negative answer is given.

And yet, with scant relief on the horizon, some Rohingya are still mustering everything they can to get out, selling their own food rations, scrap metal, even their own clothing to raise funds. One of them, Muhibullah, 54, says he made the journey overland to Malaysia in 1988, back when the ruling military junta had all but sealed off Burma from the world. He was caught and spent 18 months in prison in Malaysia before being deported home. Over the past year, he says five of his friends have made the boat trip successfully; three have died en route. “But I’m not afraid,” he says, getting nods of support from a group of hard-bitten men seated with him under the shade of a banyan tree, waiting.

An hour later, the funeral procession for Mohammad Johar glides by and the men’s conversation falls silent. Trailed by a gaggle of boys in knitted white caps, a volunteer carries the tiny blanketed corpse on a banana leaf, far past the sun-beaten barracks and empty government-built health clinic. The group finally stops at a grass clearing in earshot of the sea, where lines of bamboo pens mark the freshly dug graves. In short order the little boy is buried and a prayer offered. Another day, another life gone.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

TIME Thailand

More Than 120,000 Cambodian Migrants Have Fled the Thai Junta

Cambodian migrant workers carry belongings as they walk to cross border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew
Cambodian migrant workers carry their belongings as they walk to cross the border at Aranyaprathet, Thailand, on June 15, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Rights groups say the unprecedented exodus shows deep fear of a Thai military crackdown

An exodus of more than 120,000 Cambodians working in Thailand has raised fears of a migrant-labor crackdown in the wake of the Southeast Asian nation’s military coup.

Since the Thai army seized power on May 22, activists, academics and politician have been rounded up, strict censorship imposed and martial law enacted. The ruling junta has also adopted an increasingly nationalistic tone, vowing to deport illegal migrants.

“We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” Thai army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong said on Wednesday. (Later, though, another junta spokesperson insisted no crackdown had been ordered.)

Rumors swirl of Cambodian workers shot and killed by the Thai security forces, although Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says he has not been able to independently verify such claims. “There must be some serious abuses actually happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised given the nationalist card being played by the junta,” he says.

Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of Cambodia’s northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey by the main border crossing, told AFP, “They’re returning en masse, like a dam collapsing,” estimating the number at around 122,000 people.

“They’ve never come en masse like this before in our history,” he added. “They said they are scared of being arrested or shot if they run when Thai authorities check their houses.”

Thailand officially hosts around 2 million migrant workers, although the true figure could be as much as 5 million, according to Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, an economist at the Kasikorn Research Center. Most are undocumented and toil in woefully paid industries such as construction, textiles or seafood processing.

Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant-labor expert formerly with Bangkok’s Mahidol University, says the numbers flooding home show “something exceptional is going on.”

Migrant workers are used to being rounded up and extorted on a regular basis, says Hall, and accept such aggravations with resigned forbearance. That means whatever fears are causing them to flee now must be serious indeed.

“These workers would have spent a lot of their earnings coming to Thailand to earn money for their families,” he says. “Unless they had been there for a long time and made a lot of money, to go back would be a huge risk for them financially.”

The deluge of returnees will likely exacerbate already strained relations between the two neighbors, which frequently spar over disputed territory and Cambodia’s harboring of figures considered “undesirables” by the Thai establishment.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was briefly made “adviser on economics” to Cambodia while wanted on graft charges in his homeland, and many of his most ardent Red Shirt supporters have found sanctuary in Phnom Penh and its surrounds. “It is an open secret that [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen is really close to the Red Shirts,” says Ou Virak.

Another factor, says Hall, is that migrant workers are often paid or ordered to attend political rallies by their employers, and so frequently come under fire by rival factions. Antigovernment rabble-rouser Suthep Thaugsuban had previously attributed attacks on his demonstration camps to Cambodian hired guns. “And it wasn’t just the Cambodians,” says Hall. “There were lots of pictures of migrants in [Burmese] longyis attending rallies.”

Establishing whether the returning migrants are undocumented workers fearing arrest, or individuals with valid papers fearing for their lives, will be pivotal to gauging the gravity of the exodus, says Ou Virak.

The economies of both countries are likely to suffer, with Thai industries reliant on cheap foreign labor and Cambodian families benefiting on remittances from migrant relatives. However, “Thailand relies heavily on [Burmese] labor much more than from Cambodia, and so the impact of this kind of return of labor might not affect the overall economic system,” says Pimonwan.

Thailand’s economy is teetering on the brink of recession, having contracted 2.1% quarter on quarter in the first three months of this year. But economic stimulus plans launched by the military — including the commencement of payments to rice farmers, who are owed $2.8 billion — and a wave of new infrastructure projects should soon bear fruit, says Pimonwan, notwithstanding the depleted migrant workforce. “We think their economic measures will support a recovery in the second half of the year,” she adds.

TIME Burma

U.N.: 86,000 Rohingya Have Fled Burmese Pogroms by Boat

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar sit on a wooden boat as they wait for transportation to a temporary shelter in Aceh Besar after arriving at Lampulo habour
Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma sit on a wooden boat as they wait for transportation to a temporary shelter in Aceh Besar after arriving at Lampulo habour April 8, 2013. Reuters

Severely restricted access to food, medicine and education forces many Rohingya to seek sanctuary abroad

More than 86,000 people have attempted the treacherous voyage from restive western Burma to perceived safe havens such as Malaysia since the outbreak of sectarian violence in mid-2012, according to the U.N, which said that 615 people are known to have died making the journey in 2013 alone.

As the U.N. released those figures, details emerged Thursday of bloodshed in the Bay of Bengal, with five people killed and at least 151 injured after traffickers opened fire on a boat carrying 330 illegal migrants.

Conflicting reports have emerged over whether the victims were Bangladeshi or Burmese, although they were quite likely Rohingya — a stateless group straddling the border between both nations and shunned by both. The U.N. dubs the Rohingya “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.”

U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesman Adrian Edwards told a briefing in Geneva Tuesday that “The UNHCR estimates more than 86,000 people have left on boats since June 2012. This includes more than 16,000 people in the second half of 2012, 55,000 in 2013 and nearly 15,000 from January to April this year. The majority are Rohingya, although anecdotally the proportion of Bangladeshis has grown this year.”

The outbreak of pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya has left around 140,000 in squalid displacement camps. The Burmese government denies charges of “crimes against humanity” leveled by human rights groups, based upon its alleged complicity in violence perpetrated by Buddhist mobs.

Nevertheless, severely restricted access to food, medicine and education has forced many Rohingya to seek sanctuary abroad, often braving tempestuous seas in barely seaworthy craft. Upon arrival in new countries, such as Thailand or Indonesia, many get sold to traffickers and used as forced labor, often upon fishing boats.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: May 9 – May 16

From the Turkish mining disaster to the conclusion of the world’s largest elections in India, from the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, TIME presents the best photos of the week.

TIME southeast asia

Burma’s Racist Census Degenerates Into Violence

national census at a Rohingya village
Burmese volunteers speak to a family during a national census at a Rohingya village in Sittwe on March 31, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Burma is refusing to allow Rohingya to register in its census, and anti-Rohingya mobs have gone on the rampage, believing that aid workers are too sympathetic to the persecuted Muslim minority

Burma’s first census in three decades has reignited long-smoldering tensions in the nation’s restive west, leading to attacks on aid workers. The U.N. is also facing accusations of complicity in a discriminatory census that does not allow members of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority to identify themselves as such on census documents.

Late last week, mobs in Rakhine (or Arakan) state launched assaults on international aid organizations, sacking 14 buildings. More than 70 foreign and local staff were evacuated from the state capital, Sittwe, on Friday.

“Rakhine employees are being threatened by their own community to not work for NGOs, in some cases being physically beaten or family members threatened,” said one aid worker, quoted by the news website Asian Correspondent. The aid worker asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Boats and vehicles used to deliver aid have also been destroyed, meaning food, clean water and medical supplies will likely run out soon.

Rakhine extremists fear that international aid agencies are biased toward the persecuted Rohingya, and have resorted to violence to enforce an official refusal to recognize the Muslim minority in the population survey.

Around 140,000 Rohingya live in squalid displacement camps following sporadic pogroms over the past two years. They are incorrectly regarded as “Bengali” land-grabbers from neighboring Bangladesh — even though they have lived in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) for generations — and are denied citizenship. They also face strict curbs on marriage, reproduction and travel.

The two-week process to collect basic demographic data on Burma’s estimated 60 million people began on March 30. “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not … accept it,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut told reporters on Monday, according to the Irrawaddy.

His statement appeared to backtrack on an earlier government pledge to allow the Rohingya to self-identify on census documents.

Abu Tahay, chairman of the Union Nationals Development Party, which represents the Rohingya, confirmed that Rangoon residents were not allowed to register as Rohingya on Tuesday.

“According to the law of Myanmar everyone has the right to declare their own ethnicity, but they are refusing to accept this,” he says. “The U.N. must take a stand against continued marginalization of the Rohingya by the government.”

William Ryan, Burma spokesman for the U.N. Population Fund (formerly known as the U.N. Fund for Population Activities and still abbreviated by its former initials UNFPA), says that “UNFPA is very concerned by this apparent departure from the procedure for the census.” However, he declined to comment on whether the $75 million, U.N.-funded project was now being turned into a discriminatory tool.

According to Human Rights Watch, the U.N. body is at fault for originally agreeing to conduct the census according to the 135 ethnic groups as set out by xenophobic dictator General Ne Win in his 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya are not among those groups.

“These ethnic classifications risk exacerbating already vexing identity issues as part of the fragile nationwide ceasefire process, and within very diverse communities in ethnic areas,” said the New York City–based group in a statement.

The British embassy in Rangoon also echoed these concerns in a statement. “The government has committed to run the census in line with international standards, including allowing all respondents the option to self-identify their ethnicity,” it read. “We are concerned by recent reports that this commitment may not be met.”

Other Burmese groups representing ethnic minorities such as the Kachin, Wa, Pa-O and Mon have also raised concerns and pledged limited cooperation with the census.

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