TIME Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi Barred by Parliament From Being Burma’s President

Aung San Suu Kyi
Khin Maung Win—AP Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a meeting of her National League at Royal Rose restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar, on June 20, 2015

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from seeking the presidency

(YANGON, Burma) — Burma’s parliament has voted against proposed constitutional amendments, ensuring that the military’s veto power remains intact and that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president in an election this year.

The legislature ended a 3-day debate Thursday on proposed changes to the 2008 constitution.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from seeking the presidency and gives the military an effective veto over constitutional amendments. Changes to both those clauses were rejected Thursday.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is expected to see heavy gains against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party in the polls. The NLD swept the last free general election in 1990 but the then-ruling military junta ignored the results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for years.

TIME India

India Is Using Its Military Incursions Into Burma to Send a Message to Other Countries

New Delhi wants its neighbors to know it can no longer be pushed around, analysts say

The Indian army’s recent operations against militants along its eastern borders remains largely shrouded in mystery and continued to cause controversy on Thursday, two days after special forces crossed the border into Burma (officially known as Myanmar) and inflicted “significant casualties” at two bases belonging to insurgents there.

The Burmese government denied the operation completely, with a Facebook post from the director of the president’s office reportedly saying that according to their information the operation was performed only on the Indian side of the border.

“Myanmar will not accept any foreigner who attacks neighboring countries in the back and creates problems by using our own territory,” he said, according to Indian local media.

It is still unclear how much of the Indian operation Burma was privy to, but a senior Indian military official had said on Wednesday that authorities from both countries had been in contact about the strikes. The back-and-forth allegations and denials, however, have created a degree of friction between two countries and armies that have generally been on good terms with each other.

“It creates a problem for the Myanmar government,” Rumel Dahiya, deputy director-general of New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, and a former brigadier in the Indian army, said in an interview with TIME.

Dahiya says India’s trumpeting of the operation’s success — a swift retaliation for a militant attack that killed 20 Indian soldiers in the northeastern state of Manipur last week — places the Burmese between a rock and a hard place, no matter whether they admit knowledge of the Indian operation or not. “What do they say?” he said, pointing out that 2015 is also an election year for Burma. “In both cases it creates a bit of a complication for them.”

Instead, Dahiya advocates greater coordination with the Burmese government, with the sharing of military intelligence and the planning of joint operations. “Doing these kinds of things repeatedly would become a problem unless they are on board,” he said.

The indication from the Indian government seems to be that such operations will continue to take place, with Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar saying on Thursday that the Burma operation represents a change in India’s mindset.

“Those who fear India’s new posture have already started reacting,” he said, according to the Times of India, in a pointed dig at the South Asian nation’s contentious neighbor Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since the 1950s, and the disputed region of Kashmir remains a thorn in both their sides and a hotbed for regional terrorism.

“Pakistan is not Myanmar, and India should not think of repeating such an exercise inside Pakistani territory,” Pakistani interior minister Nisar Ali Khan had warned after the attack.

Many have criticized the Indian government’s “chest-thumping” over the successful covert operation, and although Dahiya also feels it is “definitely not required” he adds that it is part of a larger point that the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi wishes to drive home.

“The government is trying to convey a message that you can’t push India around, it’s a big country and it’s a country which can take care of its national interests,” he says, citing the reduction in ceasefire violations on the India-Pakistan border and Modi’s strong response to border infractions by China during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit last year as examples.

The Burma operation probably doesn’t represent the new norm in Indian foreign policy, Dahiya adds, but it does send the signal that “should an eventuality arise where the cost-benefit analysis suggests it is better to do that than being subjected to a major act of terror, then as the Americans say, all options are on the table.”

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 Burma

Malala Says Burma’s Rohingya Muslims ‘Deserve Citizenship’

"They deserve to be treated like we all deserve to be treated—with dignity and respect"

Activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is standing with the Rohingya people of Burma and calling on world leaders to demand an end to their persecution.

“I call on the leaders of Myanmar and the world to take immediate action to halt the inhuman persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority Rohingya people,” Yousafzai said in a statement.

“The Rohingyas deserve citizenship in the country where they were born and have lived for generations,” she added.“They deserve equal rights and opportunities. They deserve to be treated like we all deserve to be treated—with dignity and respect. Today and every day, I stand with the Rohingyas, and I encourage people everywhere to do so,” she said.

The Rohingyas are fleeing Burma en masse and have faced years of persecution considered by many to be a form of ethnic cleansing. The United Nations considers the Rohingyas one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

MORE Burma’s Nowhere People

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 Burma

Matt Dillon Puts Rare Celebrity Spotlight on Rohingya

In this Friday, May 29, 2015 photo, American actor Matt Dillon, right, shakes hands with Noor Alam, a 17-year old Rohingya survivor of human-trafficking at Thetkabyin village, north of Sittwe in the western state of Rakhine, Myanmar.
Robin McDowell—AP Matt Dillon shakes hands with Noor Alam, a 17-year old Rohingya survivor of human-trafficking, at Thetkabyin village, Burma, on May 29, 2015

"They are being strangled slowly, they have no hope for the future and nowhere to go"

(SITTWE, Myanmar) — American actor Matt Dillon put a rare star-powered spotlight on Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, visiting a hot, squalid camp for tens of thousands displaced by violence and a port that has served as one of the main launching pads for their exodus by sea.

It was “heartbreaking,” he said after meeting a young man with a raw, open leg wound from a road accident and no means to treat it.

Mothers carrying babies with clear signs of malnutrition stood listlessly outside row after row of identical bamboo huts, toddlers playing nearby in the chalky white dust.

“No one should have to live like this, people are really suffering,” said Dillon, one of the first celebrities to get a first-hand look at what life is like for Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine. “They are being strangled slowly, they have no hope for the future and nowhere to go.”

Though Rohingya have been victims of state-sponsored discrimination for decades, conditions started deteriorating three years ago after the predominantly Buddhist country of 50 million began its bumpy transition from a half-century of dictatorship to democracy.

Taking advantage of newfound freedoms of expression, radical monks started fanning deep-seated societal hatred for the religious minority. Hundreds have been killed by machete-wielding mobs and a quarter million others now live under apartheid-like conditions in camps or have fled by boat -hundreds of dehydrated, hungry Rohingya washing onto Southeast Asian shores in recent weeks.

Denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless with almost no basic rights. As they become increasingly marginalized, several groups are warning that the building blocks of genocide are in place.

“I know that’s a very touchy word to use,” said Dillon, wearing his trademark black T-shirt and jeans. “But there’s a very ominous feeling here.”

“I’ve been to some places where the threats of violence seemed more imminent,” said Dillon, who has also visited refugee camps in Sudan, the Congo and elsewhere. “Here it’s something else. It feels more like people are going to be left to wither away and die.”

Dillon said he decided to come to Myanmar following a desperate, urgent appeal by Rohingya activist Thun Khin at a Refugees International fundraiser in Washington, D.C., just over a month ago. In Japan to promote his new television series, Wayward Pines, he decided it was a good time to make the trip.

“There are people working here, people who know a hell of a lot more about it than I do,” Dillon said after hearing grumbling from some aid workers about what he hoped to achieve. “But listen, if I can use my voice to draw attention to something, where I see people suffering, I’ll do that any day of the week. I’m happy to do that.”

He spoke to two teenage boys who tried to flee by boat, only to find themselves in the hands of human traffickers, and was chased away by armed security guards when trying to snap pictures of the last standing Rohingya neighborhood in the state capital – a ghetto surrounded by tall walls topped by rolls of heavy barbed wire.

But what really choked him up were the camps: “It affected me more than I thought it would.”

While there were clear signs humanitarian agencies are active – new latrines, well-placed hand pumps, concrete open sewers – he noted in contrast to camps he’s visited in Sudan and the Congo, he didn’t run into a single Western aid worker during his two-day visit.

Nor were NGO trucks rumbling through with medical equipment, food or other supplies – due primarily to severe restrictions placed on aid agencies by the government following pressure from Buddhist extremists.

“A lot of people are suffering,” he said. “I’m really glad I had a chance to come, to see for myself what’s happening here.”

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.

TIME Burma

U.S. Condemns Burma’s Treatment of Rohingya as Migrant Crisis Intensifies

Nearly 4,000 people remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies

Washington called on the nations of Southeast Asia to marshal their forces to help thousands of Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants who have been marooned on the high seas for weeks.

UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, warned on Tuesday “that time was running out” for the migrants fleeing sectarian violence in Burma and poverty in neighboring Bangladesh.

“We estimate that nearly 4,000 people from [Burma] and Bangladesh remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies on board,” Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman, told journalists in Geneva. “Unconfirmed reports suggest the number could be higher.”

On Wednesday, fishermen from the Indonesian province of Aceh helped rescue more than 430 stranded migrants, many of whom were suffering from dehydration and starvation after spending months on rickety trawlers.

Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian officials held an emergency meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to address the desperate plight of the migrants, who were abandoned by traffickers following a crackdown on their smuggling networks in Thailand. Following the meeting, both Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to stop pushing boats back to sea and provide temporary shelter to thousands adrift at sea. (Thailand made no such guarantee.)

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department lambasted Burma, officially called Myanmar, for failing to address the root cause of the crisis, which observers say stems largely from the government’s refusal to recognize the Muslim minority as lawful citizens.

“What needs to change here is that the Rohingya need to feel welcome in the country of their birth, in the country of their parents’ birth, of their grandparents’ birth,” Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, told CNN during an interview on Tuesday.

“They need to be treated as citizens with dignity and human rights.”

Within Burma, the Rohingya are widely discriminated against by the country’s Buddhist majority and are commonly viewed as interlopers from Bangladesh, despite overwhelming evidence that they’ve lived in the country for generations.

The Burmese government has even refused to discuss the migrant issue with other nations who used the term Rohingya instead of Naypyidaw’s preferred, and racially loaded, term of Bengalis.

“If we recognize the name, then they will think they are citizens of Myanmar … Myanmar cannot take all the blame for these people who are now at sea,” Zaw Htay, a director in the office of Burmese President Thein Sein, told CNN.

The Rohingya were effectively rendered stateless after being stripped of their citizenship by the former ruling junta in 1982 and have been systemically excluded from Burmese society since.

Following a rash of ethnosectarian rioting in 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya have been forced to reside in squalid displacement camps, bereft of adequate food or medical supplies, which has been instrumental in pushing thousands to flee by boat with the hopes of reaching Malaysia.

In a bulletin published on the front page of the state-backed daily the Global New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday, Burma’s Foreign Ministry promised to begin providing humanitarian assistance to “anyone who suffered in the sea.”

Read next: The Rohingya, Burma’s Forgotten Muslims by James Nachtwey

However, analysts argue that little will change in the long run until Burma and neighboring countries address the systemic conditions that prompt this wretched community to risk their lives at sea rather than live in the country of their birth.

“The governments need to pull Myanmar to the table regardless of whatever excuses they try to come up with,” Lilianne Fan, co-founder of the Indonesia-based Geutanyoe Foundation that works to assist the refugees and migrants in Aceh, tells TIME.

According to the statistics compiled by the International Organization for Migration, more the 88,000 people have made the dangerous voyage across the Bay of Bengal since 2014, including 25,000 who arrived during the first quarter of this year.

At least 1,000 are believed to have died at sea because of “the precarious conditions of the voyage, and an equal number because of mistreatment and privation” wrought by human traffickers.

TIME Nepal

Rohingya Say Quake-Ravaged Nepal Is Better Than Life at Home or Death at Sea

Hassan Hassan, left, and other Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal
Sabrina Toppa for TIME Hassan Hassan, left, with fellow Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu in July 2014

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime”

After last Tuesday’s magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck Nepal, the fear of aftershocks prompted Hassan Hassan to sleep on the street. The temblor sliced off his door, shattered his windows, and cracked the walls of the ramshackle dwelling he shared with almost 30 other refugees on Kathmandu’s outskirts.

Hassan is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim from western Burma, a country now officially known as Myanmar. Along with tens of thousands of Rohingyas, the 22-year-old fled recent pogroms initiated by his homeland’s Buddhist majority in search of a better life elsewhere.

But while most Rohingya escape on rickety boats, facing possible extortion or execution in Thai trafficking camps en route to safety, Hassan instead trundled overland more than 100 km into the snow-capped Himalayas.

And despite the wanton devastation, half-million homes flattened and at least 8,500 lives lost, the recent twin quakes and numerous aftershocks have not stopped Hassan from counting his blessings.

“I am lucky,” he tells TIME. “If I had gone to Thailand, maybe I also would’ve died.”

Out of Nepal’s total 37,000 refugees, some 120 are Burmese, of whom 70% are Rohingya, according to the local U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) office. While the 21,500 camp-based Bhutanese are recognized as legitimate refugees, “urban refugees” like the Rohingya are officially deemed illegal migrants.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim group of 1.3 million that mainly live in Burma’s westernmost Arakan state, and are dubbed “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples” by the U.N. The Burmese government refuses to grant them citizenship and claims they are in fact interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh similarly shuns them as non-citizens.

Rohingya in Burma face restrictions on travel, education, marriage and land ownership. However, when politically expedient to the military-dominated government, Rohingyas have occasionally been allowed to vote.

“Many of them have been killed,” says Silvia di Gaetano, a Burma researcher at the Rights in Exile Programme. “Those who remain suffer malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; and above all discrimination and persecution.”

Confined to squalid displacement camps, many Rohingya have fled east, potentially to die in the sea on the way to Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia. Now, however, these nations have started turning the boats away. And in recent weeks, mass graves have been uncovered in the thick jungle where Thailand tapers into Malaysia, belonging to Rohingya who fell prey to human traffickers that demand exorbitant ransoms to set them free. Those without wealthy connections are slain as a warning to others.

Activists have raised alarm that the Andaman Sea’s transformation into a “floating graveyard” is imminent, as the world witnesses a startling uptick in Rohingya’s perilous cross-border journeys. The U.N. reports that in this year alone, these voyages have nearly doubled, with almost 25,000 people estimated to attempt the journey, and 300 deaths already projected from unsuccessfully charting it.

As this humanitarian crisis deepens, most Rohingya in Nepal have expressed gratitude for the nation’s willingness to take them in and donate tents and critical relief supplies, despite recent quake-related hardships.

“For Rohingya, Nepal is still better than Burma,” says 30-year-old Zafir Miya, who also traversed South Asia — from Burma through Bangladesh and India to Nepal — in order to find a safe haven.

Hassan, who believes he is Nepal’s first Rohingya refugee, arrived in August 2012 — by mistake. “When I went from Bangladesh to India, the currency changed, so I knew I was in a different country,” he recalls. “But when I entered Nepal, they were still using Indian currency.”

Hassan did not realize Kathmandu was the capital of Nepal, a distinct country. Growing up in the Maungdaw district of Arakan state, Hassan says he lacked access to radio, television — Burma banned Rohingya-language broadcasts in 1965 — or even a SIM card, which before recent reforms would cost over $2,000.

When Hassan made his way to Kathmandu, he first scoured the city’s jails for the familiar faces of his missing kin, as many urban refugees are rounded up by police for illegal stays.

“Most [refugees] have been overstaying in Nepal for years,” says UNHCR Nepal spokesperson Deepesh Das Shrestha. The refugees are subject to a $5 per day overstay fine, possibly accumulating thousands of dollars in debt they cannot pay, because they are not allowed to work.

Without labor privileges in Nepal, most Rohingya are forced to stay idle, surviving on a UNHCR stipend of slightly more than $42 per month. For Hassan, this means his memory is awash with details of family he has not seen since before the 2012 Arakan state riots. He stays awake thinking of his mother Hafiza Begum, 43, whose towering stature distinguishes her from most Rohingya women. Hassan’s black-bearded father of 6 ft. 5 in., Mohammad Amin, 50, is marked by a 1.5-in. scar above his nose. All members of his family, except his 4-ft. 8-in. sister Rubina Aziz, are taller than the average Burmese citizens, including his four brothers: Emrun Faroque, Mojibur Rahman, Mahfujur Rahman and Tareq Aziz.

“If they are in Burma, they are dead,” says Hassan. “But if they escaped, there is a chance I can find them.”

According to UNHCR Nepal, nearly 60% of Nepal’s refugees from Burma are single men searching for family members. When communal riots first erupted in Arakan, Hassan was working in Bangladesh as a seasonal laborer, but planned to return home to observe the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

But when he did, Hassan found an empty home amid a forsaken desert of torched houses. A neighbor said his relatives might have fled to Bangladesh during the violence, so Hassan left on a fisherman’s boat under the cover of night to examine Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar.

Finding no answers there, Hassan had few options but to follow rumors that his family might have pushed on into India. After searching fruitlessly in Darjeeling and West Bengal, Hassan went to Nepal.

For all its challenges, Nepal pales in comparison to stories Hassan says he hears from those trapped in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. And Hassan, like the majority of Rohingya, has found a sense of community with Nepal’s minority Muslim community, which accounts for a mere 4% of the population of 30 million.

“In Nepal, they don’t look at the difference between a Hindu or Muslim,” Miya tells TIME.

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime,” Hassan adds.

Yet the nagging question of missing relatives remains. Nepal is a transit point, a temporary shelter before the Rohingya weather the next storm. UNHCR has set up psychosocial counseling for refugees to alleviate earthquake-related anxiety, but the larger problem remains: How does a Rohingya refugee build a life between one location and the next? How does he track down loved ones without papers — lacking any state recognition — that remain in perennial flight, floating in seas, trundling across borders, always fleeing one threat only to face another?

In spite of its seismological perils, Nepal affords the Rohingya an opportunity to carve out a life freer than Southeast Asia, and many hope to bring kin — if they ever find them — to also settle in Kathmandu.

Though far from perfect, quake-ravaged Nepal may offer the best hope to a community whose statelessness remains a source of horrific vulnerability.

“This is the situation of the Rohingya,” says Hassan. “The person who is not a citizen anywhere has no limit to the punishment he can suffer.”

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