TIME Thailand

Courtroom at Koh Tao Backpacker Murder Trial Hears of More Thai Police Blunders

Police admit that key CCTV cameras were not checked

Police investigating the murder of a pair of British backpackers on an idyllic Thai beach have revealed that they didn’t check key CCTV cameras — the latest troubling admission in a case deemed an acid test for Thailand’s justice system.

Burmese migrant workers Wai Phyo and Zaw Lin, both 22, are currently on trial for the murder of David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the Thai Gulf island of Koh Tao.

The tourists’ bodies were discovered on Sept. 15 last year by rocks on Koh Tao’s popular Sairee Beach.

Both defendants deny the allegations, claiming they are scapegoats who were tortured into confessing by police seeking to safeguard the coral-fringed island’s vital tourism industry. Police deny any mistreatment.

Human-rights groups have also raised concerns that the defendants are being railroaded because of their vulnerable status as migrant workers.

Friday marked two-thirds of the way through the 18-day trial, which is split into three equal parts on Koh Tao’s neighboring island of Koh Samui, and proceedings so far have offered little to suggest that Thailand’s reputation for fumbling justice is undeserved.

On Wednesday, Police Colonel Cherdpong Chiewpreecha told the court that nobody examined CCTV footage of a boat leaving the island around an hour after the presumed time of the murders. “We have the footage, but we never checked it,” he said, according to Sky News.

Cherdpong also conceded that officers never investigated rumors of an altercation between Witheridge and a young Thai man in the AC Bar, a late-night drinking hole where both she and Miller were last seen prior to the discovery of their bodies. The defense maintains this same man may have committed the crime before fleeing the island on the boat.

Additionally, no fingerprints or DNA tests were performed on the suspected murder weapons — a wooden club and garden hoe found near the bodies — as investigators did not believe such tests would be useful following a cursory examination of the objects with a magnifying glass. (The items of evidence were brought into court in a supermarket shopping trolley, reports the Guardian.)

The revelations were met by gasps in the courtroom, where both representatives of the victims’ and defendants’ families were present. The prosecution case hinges on DNA samples from the defendants that purportedly match those retrieved from Witheridge’s corpse.

On Friday, the bench finally permitted defense lawyers to request independent retesting of all DNA evidence. However, police have already said that key DNA evidence collected from the victims had been “used up.”

Given that Thailand welcomes 25 million tourists each year, the case has unfurled in the full media glare, with foreign press outnumbering domestic. Coverage has still been spotty, though, not least because, as is common in Thailand, reporters have been barred from taking notes inside the courtroom.

According to Andrew Drummond, a British journalist who covered court cases in Thailand for 25 years, this is because any “note-taking will invariably differ with the official version.” However, in Thailand the judge takes the notes himself rather than using a designated court transcriber. “The system is open to all sorts of abuse and misuse,” adds Drummond.

Several international media outlets have also complained of being unable to find translators as prospective candidates have been scared off by local thugs, adding weight to the theory that the murders have a criminal connection.

During the initial six-day segment of the trial, a Burmese man was brought in to act as court translator. However, the defendants protested, alleging he was among those who assaulted them during interrogation. Zaw Lin said the translator was present when police “put the bags on us and punched us,” reported the Bangkok Post. “I remember his voice.”

The translator was finally dismissed after the defense complained that he was also included on the prosecution’s list of witnesses. (He declined to comment on the allegations of abuse when contacted by TIME prior to the trial.)

Fears of mistreatment were not eased when the defendants complained that they were forced to sleep in their shackles following an earlier court appearance, as no official was around to remove the chains.

“The police are terrible and unjust,” Wai Phyo told TIME in Koh Samui Prison prior to the trial. “And the judge will just act to try and protect his country.”

NOW READ: This Septic Isle: Backpackers, Bloodshed and the Secretive World of Koh Tao

TIME Thailand

This Septic Isle: Backpackers, Bloodshed and the Secretive World of Koh Tao

The death-penalty case has caused an international sensation

The balcony of room A5 at Ocean View Bungalows commands one of the finest vistas of Koh Tao’s sweeping Sairee Beach. Traditional longtail boats, a rainbow of scarves adorning their bows, bob on the lapping water of the glistening bay. And right in the foreground, rising proudly from sliver sands, protrude a scattering of granite boulders, a furtive relic of this tranquil 21-sq-km (8 sq. mi.) island’s volcanic inception.

These rocks are no strangers to explosive secrets. On Sept. 15, one of the occupants of that same room A5, Hannah Witheridge, was found bludgeoned to death in their midst alongside fellow British tourist David Miller, just a short stumble from her door. Witheridge, 23, from Great Yarmouth, a seaside town on the English east coast, had been raped and killed by blows to the head. Miller, a year older and from Jersey, one of the U.K.’s Channel Islands, had likewise suffered deep lacerations to his skull before drowning in the shallow surf.

A mute Burmese beach cleaner stumbled upon the bodies shortly after dawn. A garden hoe and wooden club found nearby were quickly fingered as the principal murder weapons.

The crime’s brutality amid Koh Tao’s insular, backpacker charm caused an international sensation and threatened to further weaken a tourist industry already reeling from the military coup of May 22, 2014, which saw hundreds arbitrarily detained and draconian new controls imposed on freedom of speech and assembly.

Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha enraged many by hinting that the blame, at some level, lay with the attractive victims. “Will [tourists] survive in Thailand if they dress in bikinis?” he asked Sept. 17. He added that they would if “they are not beautiful.”

Prayuth soon backtracked on his remarks on travelers, saying, “Sometimes I speak too strongly.” But virtually his next breath again sought to assign blame: “We have to help take care of [our nation],” he said, “and not let not-good people mingle with us, such as unregistered alien workers.”

Investigators had already steered their attention to migrant workers, via a friend of the deceased, and the son of a local headman, who were briefly considered as suspects. DNA testing of casual workers was introduced and many migrants complained of rough interrogations, with some claiming that they were scalded with boiling water. (Police deny these allegations.)

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 22-year-old ethnic Rakhine from Burma’s restive Arakan state, were arrested on Oct. 2. The police quickly elicited a confession and, after a macabre reconstruction of the murders before a swarm of media — including a staged session of penitent prayers by the accused — probably hoped that the case looked closed.

But it unraveled just as quickly. After finally receiving independent legal counsel, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, who had no prior criminal records, claimed they had been tortured during interrogation and recanted. Human-rights groups expressed serious concerns.

The 18-day trial of the two defendants, divided into three equal parts over several weeks, began on July 8. A verdict is expected in October and they could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Over the coming weeks we hope to gain a better understanding as to how such a wonderful young man lost his life in such idyllic surroundings in such a horrible way,” said Miller’s family in a statement at the opening of the trial.

Family members of Hannah Witheridge, one of the two British tourists killed on Koh Tao island, comfort each other at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok
Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters Family members of Hannah Witheridge comfort one another at the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok, on Sept. 18, 2014


The murders of Witheridge and Miller sent shock waves through Thailand. “That the victims were tourists automatically drew more attention,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut. “And the shambolic investigation also didn’t help.”

Foreigners die surprisingly often here. There were 362 U.K. citizens who met their end in Thailand in 2014, more so even than in France, which attracts almost 20 times as many British visitors. But generally they lose their lives through traffic accidents, overdoses and suicides. This was very different.

Of the 25 million foreign visitors who touch down in Thailand each year, half a million grace Koh Tao, the smallest of three popular tourist islands in the Thai Gulf. The largest and most developed is Koh Samui, which also boasts the archipelago’s only international airport. The next in size is Koh Phangan, home of the infamous Full Moon parties, with a reputation for drugs and debauchery. Koh Tao is by far the smallest. Ringed by coral gardens and teeming with kaleidoscope shoals of tropical fish, it was primarily known, until now, for its diving.

But Koh Tao was a political penal colony from 1933 until 1947, and a sense of self-sufficiency and isolation exists to this day. Far from official oversight, de facto control falls to the owners of booming hospitality businesses that were developed on land originally obtained, via government concessions, for coconut plantations.

Feuding here is common and vicious. Greg Shepherd, 34, from Luton in the U.K., tells TIME he witnessed a man getting shot in the face in a bar north of Sairee Beach in the mid-2000s. “They took the victim away in a pickup truck and the barman just got a mop out and cleaned up the blood,” he says.

In general, tourists are almost comically unaware of this malevolent undercurrent. Yet it remains an open secret that “organized crime is rampant on these islands,” says Saksith. Little wonder the conversational staple of many long-term expats is, “These are the worst Thais in Thailand.”

Drugs play a key role. The sweet reek of marijuana is commonplace even in prominent beachfront bars, while cocaine and crystal meth, known locally as yaba or “crazy drug,” are not hard to find, say locals. At one establishment by Chalok Baan Chao, joints are sold for 200 baht ($6) while a magic mushroom milkshake costs 700 baht ($20). “Nice and strong,” grins the heavily tattooed barman. The families that run the island and police that guard it deny any involvement with narcotics. But the sheer ubiquity of drugs on Koh Tao suggests at the very least a high toleration of the trade.

Naturally, a pall of silence engulfs this clannish, cliquey atoll, owing in no small part to the legal standing of its foreign contingent.

There are no official figures for the number of expats who call Thailand home, but it likely runs into the hundreds of thousands. Pensions and incomes that would be less than optimum in Europe, say, or North America, can fund a life of carefree hedonism in Thailand.

On tiny Koh Tao alone, there are some 2,000 expats alongside the 2,500 registered Thais, according to Mayor Chaiyan Turasakul. Most are running guesthouses, eateries and scuba-diving operations or working as diving instructors. However, according to Rhys Bonney, an immigration adviser to expats in Thailand, even the legality of scuba-diving instructors is an “extremely gray area” as Thai work permits are specific to particular company premises. “There’s no work permit that allows you to work in 15 different locations [under the sea],” he says. “Legally, it would seem quite easy to shut these dive shops down.”

Insecure residency tends to breed compliance. “Once you’ve been living there for a while, you’ll turn a blind eye to some pretty sketchy stuff,” says Mike Earley, 30, from New Zealand, who spent six months on the island working as a DJ. Complaining about wrongdoing may invite official questions and demands for passports and documentation. Expats “don’t want to lose their time in paradise,” Earley says, “as it’s cheap, it’s nice living, and it’s very easy to ignore what happens.”

Even murder.

Hannah Witheridge murder
Athit Perawongmetha—ReutersBurmese migrant workers Wai Phyo and Zaw Lin arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui, Thailand, on July 8, 2015


Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo are two of an estimated 2 million irregular Burmese migrants, along with smaller numbers from neighboring Cambodia and Laos, currently working low-paid jobs in comparatively thriving Thailand. They toil in slavelike conditions for pitiful wages in occupations typically described as 3-D — dirty, dangerous, degrading.

Some work on fishing boats for years without seeing land, getting passed between trawlers, catching fish, squid and shrimp for American dinner tables. (Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter.) Others labor for long hours under the burning sun farming pineapples, exposed to hazardous doses of pesticides and other chemicals. And on Koh Tao there are around 5,000 Burmese — conspicuous by the golden streaks of thanaka paste, a traditional sunscreen and beauty product, garnishing their cheeks — who build hotels, sweep rooms and serve drinks to the coppery throngs of tourists.

They flee extreme poverty and ethnic violence in Burma (officially now known as Myanmar), the legacy of a half-century of civil war and suffocating military dictatorship. Even though recent quasi-democratic reforms have seen an influx of tourist dollars and the rolling back of sanctions, that means little for the nation’s rural poor. In fact, says Sean Turnell, a professor and expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University, “The economic circumstances of Myanmar’s majority rural population are now marginally worse than before the reforms were launched.”

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo know this too well. Speaking exclusively to TIME at Koh Samui Prison, both appear much younger than their 22 years. Zaw Lin, as pimply as any teen, chats eagerly of his love of Manchester United and star Portuguese winger Nani. Wai Phyo, a Real Madrid fanatic who idolizes FIFA world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, moves a virtually hairless top lip as he talks.

“My father died when I was very young,” says Zaw Lin, “so l left school aged 8 and started helping my mother in the fields when I was 10.” Facing worsening poverty, around two years ago he paid a broker 5,000 baht ($150) to transport him to Koh Tao, heartened by tales he’d heard of fellow villagers who had eked out a successful living there. Since then, he had managed to send back almost $2,000 to help his destitute family. “It’s something but it’s not enough,” he says.

To be able to work on Koh Tao, illegal Burmese migrants paid a 500-baht ($15) bribe each month, plus another 500 baht if they want to use a motorbike without a Thai driving license. Typically, they work seven days a week for a pittance, sleeping in bamboo shacks erected in jungle clearances. Possessing no official status or documents, their vulnerability is extreme, and complaints of rape, extortion and physical violence are legion. “Burmese people are treated as second-class citizens,” says Saksith. “Dehumanizing as it sounds, they are a commodity for some people.”

Asked whether he has a message for his compatriots considering working in Thailand, Wai Phyo simply says, “Be careful when you go out at night as you might step in the wrong place.”

Police measure footprints of a man as data is collected from people who work near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found, on the island of Koh Tao
Chaiwat Subprasom—ReutersPolice measure footprints of a man as data is collected from people who work near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found, on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, on Sept. 19, 2014


Theories abound on Koh Tao about who killed Miller and Witheridge. Many believe the true culprits are local, and these suspicions were fueled after a Scottish friend of Miller fled the island claiming to have had his life threatened by local thugs.

Nevertheless, few have rallied to the defense of the accused. One of Wai Phyo’s former employers, who saw him soon after Sept. 15 and noticed no perceivable change in his demeanor, has refused to be a character witness or be named by TIME. “I’ve not been threatened, but I’ve too much to lose,” he says. “This is the wild west.”

At present, the case rests on DNA evidence linking cigarette butts found around 20 m from the bodies next to a crooked log where Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo admit they were playing guitar and drinking beer on the evening in question. These samples purportedly match those retrieved from Witheridge’s corpse.

But many have concerns that the scene was contaminated immediately after the discovery of the bodies; myriad officials, journalists and even bewildered tourists were seen traipsing through the area while evidence was still being gathered. Gruesome photos of the bloodied corpses circulated online, either leaked by officials or even taken by passersby. Thailand’s forensics chief, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, has said that by not using trained specialists, “police contradicted the principles of forensic science.”

Forensic evidence is processed independently in the U.S. or U.K. and many other jurisdictions around the world, safeguarding a proper chain of custody. But in Thailand, the police perform the entire process. This is troubling when set against the allegations of torture made by the accused.

Wai Phyo says officers removed his clothes and left him naked in a freezing room for 20 minutes. “They beat me and put a bag over my head, humiliating me by taking pictures and a video,” he said. “They threatened to kill me, saying: ‘We can throw you into the sea and feed your corpse to the fish.’”

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission investigated these allegations, but progress has been glacial, not least because police representatives failed to turn up to four arranged meetings. The police categorically deny any mistreatment and no officer has been charged to date.

Torture allegations aside, the proceedings have been peppered with oddities. The families of Miller and Witheridge even put out a statement saying the evidence against Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo was “powerful and convincing.” This assertion was facilitated by the U.K. Foreign Office despite being prejudicial toward the possibility of a fair trial. (Both families declined to comment when contacted by TIME.)

More recently, a court order to allow Dr. Pornthip to review the DNA evidence was rescinded. “The defense lawyers urgently need both crucial information gained from the re-examination of forensic evidence in this case and also adequate time to consider this information prior to the trial beginning,” said lead defense lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat in a statement last month.

On July 10, the bench again ordered the DNA to be retested, only for the police to reveal that certain key samples — specifically those retrieved from the victims’ bodies — had been used up. The only items still available for retesting were objects found around the crime scene, including the suspected murder weapons, but one witness claimed that these had been washed.

According to Kingsley Abbott, Southeast Asia legal expert for the International Commission of Jurists, “The defense must be afforded adequate time and facilities to explore whether the alleged destruction of evidence in this case was appropriate and unavoidable, and to test the prosecution case overall.”

Back on Koh Tao, authorities have scrambled to blot out the tragedy. “Koh Tao is very safe,” says Mayor Chaiyan. “Because we have learned for generations to take care of visitors.” A brand new police station has been built with 40 full-time officers replacing the five previously based here. A process of registering irregular Burmese migrant workers has been introduced to tackle the semiofficial bribes, though many say abuses continue unabated.

Few of the visitors on Sairee Beach today are even aware the murders took place. “I had no idea,” says Jordi Cramer, 21, a waitress from Edmonton, Canada, when TIME speaks to her strolling past the granite-hemmed crime scene. “I did feel safe, but that is scary.”

Scared is right. For while the surf has washed the blood from the sand, and life returns to normal for the island’s hodgepodge of wealthy and penniless inhabitants, one fact remains clear: not just the boulders hide secrets on Koh Tao.

David Miller and Hannah Witheridge
Family handoutsDavid Miller, 24, from Jersey, left, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, from Great Yarmouth
TIME Photojournalism Links

The 10 Best Photo Essays of the Month

A compilation of the 10 most interesting photo essays published online in June, as curated by Mikko Takkunen

This month’s Photojournalism Links collection highlights 10 excellent photo essays from across the world, including Tomas Munita’s powerful work on Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority. The photographs, made on assignment for The New York Times, capture a camp in Sittwe, Burma, where some 140,000 Rohingya live in bamboo huts without electricity, in conditions that partly explain why thousands of the Muslim ethnic group have tried to migrate across Asia these past few months.

Tomas Munita: For the Rohingya of Burma, a Hardscrabble Existence (The New York Times)

James Nachtwey: The Plight of the Rohingya (TIME LightBox) TIME’s contract photographer travelled to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, to document the plight of Asia’s newest boat people.

Pete Muller: Seeking the Source of Ebola (National Geographic) World Press Photo winner Muller’s excellent pictures track the Ebola outbreak from Democratic Republic of Congo to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast.

Rena Effendi: In the Footsteps of Gandhi (National Geographic) Effendi’s beautiful color photographs look at the great Indian leader’s impact, past and present.

Robin Hammond: Chronicling the Struggles of LGBT People Around the World (TIME LightBox) Moving portraits series on survivors of discrimination

David Guttenfelder: Illuminating North Korea (The New York Times) Yet another fascinating look at the hermit kingdom by the National Geographic Society Fellow.

Matt Black: Geography of Poverty (MSNBC) The new Magnum nominee is expanding his project documenting poverty from California to rest of the U.S.

Philip Montgomery: Scott Walker and the Fate of the Union (The New York Times Magazine) Stunning black and white pictures document the fight to protect workers’ rights in Wisconsin.

Arnau Bach: Stranded in Marseille (The New Yorker Photo Booth) Bach won the Pierre and Alexandra Boulat grant in 2013 and used the funds to make a portrait of one of the poorest French cities.

Charles Ommanney: The Black Route to Europe (The Washington Post) These photographs track one Syrian family’s journey from Aleppo to Austria| More on the Washington Post In Sight blog: Pt.1 and Pt. 2.

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

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

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.


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.”


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

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

The Plight of the Rohingya by James Nachtwey

More Rohingya are embarking on perilous journeys to Thailand and Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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