TIME Sri Lanka

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME southeast asia

Elephants Are Tortured and Trafficked to Entertain Tourists in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Burma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Burma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Burma

Burma’s Logging Ban Is Great for Forests, but a Disaster for Its Working Elephants

An elephant pulls a teak log
An elephant pulls a teak log in a logging camp in Pinlebu township, Sagaing, northern Burma, in this picture taken March 6, 2014. Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Some 5,000 elephants are used in Burma's timber industry. When logging stops, they'll either be left to fend for themselves in the wild or else slaughtered for their hides and tusks

Modern Burmese history was built on teak, which is to say it was built on the backs of elephants. The British quickly saw teak’s potential after colonizing Burma in 1824, and realized that hitching an elephant to a two-ton log was the only way of getting timber from where it was felled to the nearest waterway, and floating it to mill and market.

It was arduous work, with malaria and anthrax decimating man and behemoth. But fortunes were made and the timber helped shape the world map by being the stuff from which the British imperial fleet was fashioned. Teak remained vital after Burma’s independence in 1948. It was the second highest source of legal foreign exchange and exports for the military dictatorship, earning the junta hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Last year, in the land that is now officially known as Myanmar, total timber exports surpassed 1.24 million cubic tons and generated more than $1 billion in revenue, of which teak alone earned $359 million. From Tuesday, however, the new quasi-democratic government is banning the export of round logs and slashing its total logging quotas. The plan is to stimulate a domestic milling and carpentry industry and protect already plundered forest, which plummeted from 58% of total land in 1990 to 47% in 2010, according to government figures.

But while applauded in many environmental quarters, this move will likely spell disaster for the more than 5,000 elephants and their oosi, or handlers, who rely on this trade. Sixty percent of Burma’s timber industry still depends on elephants — not only for their tremendous strength but for their ability to haul huge logs with minimal damage to the surrounding forest.

Currently, 2,851 of these working animals belong to the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE), while around 2,700 belong to private firms involved in logging, says Tin Win Maw, who founded Green Valley Elephant Camp in Shan State for retired timber elephants.

After some 25 years backbreaking toil, “some have health problems — cardiac problems or eye problems — and we decide they are not suitable to work any longer,” she tells TIME. The government has camps for retired elephants, but “they don’t have enough resources” and need to “give more supplementary treatments” for elephants that fall ill.

In the wake of the April 1 logging ban, and with nowhere else to go, many timber elephants may be released into the wild, but “because of deforestation there are not enough habitats for them,” the campaigner adds. Competition for land and food will likely bring them into conflict with humans; in India, parallel pressures see up to 300 people killed each year from marauding elephants.

If not set free, elephants risk being slaughtered for their precious ivory or hides. Many could also be smuggled across the border to Thailand and put to work in the tourism industry, where animal abuse is rife. Still others could used in Burma’s illegal timber trade, which in fact accounts for the great majority of the business.

According to report released last week by a green nonprofit, the Environmental Investigation Agency, nearly three-quarters of all Burmese logs were smuggled across the border through illicit export deals between 2000 and 2013. (Most of these were harvested from inferior or juvenile trees, however — the best timber is sold through legitimate dealers in Rangoon.) “Sometimes there are a thousand trucks each day going into China with teak, and years ago it was even more than that,” says Bob Steber, managing director of Singapore-based Ginnacle Import Export, who has dealt in teak for more than four decades.

The fear is that banning legal Burmese timber exports will cause this unregulated sector to grow even more. Plantation teak now exists as far afield as Indonesia, Africa and the Caribbean, but typically grows quickly due to overly wet climates, and so is comparatively soft and liable to crack. The best Burmese teak, by contrast, is richer in natural oils and dries out for around eight or nine months of the year, sometimes taking up to 20 years for one inch of growth. “For the real good teak there’s only one thing, and that’s the Burma teak,” says Steber.

While plantation teak is adequate for garden furniture, picture frames and assorted curios, natural teak is essential for luxury yachts, as the oils repel water and keeps the wood from cracking. “And teak has silica — sand — in it so you don’t slip and fall when its wet,” says Steber. “It really is amazing.”

Burma is estimated to have half of all the world’s natural teak, and is the only country where it can still be felled. Last year, nearly 400,000 cu m of teak were felled and exported — three quarters of global supply — but the proposed cut in quotas for 2014 means that just 80,000 cu m will be felled across all grades this year. “There is no doubt the prices will rise dramatically but total supply is still very much in doubt,” says Shannon Rogers, of Philadelphia timber company J. Gibson McIlvain.

So is the future of Burma’s elephants, upon which so much of the country’s wealth has been founded.

TIME Burma

Burma’s Muslims Are Facing Incredibly Harsh Curbs on Marriage, Childbirth and Religion

Buddhist monks protest against a visit to Myanmar by a high-level delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in Yangon in November 2013. The clergy play a leading role in stoking anti-Muslim feeling. Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Proposed discriminatory laws are the latest escalation in persecution of Muslims and a political ploy to secure Buddhist votes ahead of polls in 2015

Last March, sectarian riots roiled central Burma, and at least 48 people, mainly Muslims, were slaughtered by machete-wielding thugs. Buddhist monks spurred on frenzied mobs in an orgy of bloodshed that will be forever indelible in the minds of the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim minority. The violence spread to a further 11 townships.

One year on, thousands remain homeless and animosity is entrenched. “It is not stable, and conditions are still very dangerous,” says Aung Thein, a 51-year-old Muslim lawyer in Meiktila, a central Burmese town of 100,000 people, where at least five mosques and more than 800 homes were razed to the ground. “Extremists use hate speech every day, and Muslims are not safe.”

Adding to this already fraught picture, new legislation threatens to isolate the Muslims further. Proposed regulations will restrict religious conversions, make it illegal for Buddhist women to marry Muslim men, place limits on the number of children Muslims can have and outlaw polygamy, which is permitted in Islam.

More than 1.3 million signatures have reportedly been gathered in support of this plan, which is spearheaded by a group of extremist Buddhist monks and their lay supporters. The proposals were forwarded by reformist President Thein Sein to lower-house speaker Shwe Mann late last month, and have now been submitted to relevant ministries to be drafted as bills. They have been dubbed an “intolerance package” by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who says they would be a “recipe for disaster for a multicultural, multireligious country like Burma.”

As part of the marriage proposal, those of other religions must convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist and seek written consent of the bride’s parents. (The consent of the groom’s parents is not required, for it is assumed the non-Buddhist party is always the groom.) Any non-Buddhist who ignores the regulations will be hit with a 10-year prison sentence and confiscation of property.

The proposals are merely the latest incarnation of spiraling religious extremism that has gripped Burma (officially known as Myanmar) since quasi-democratic rule was introduced in 2010. In June 2012, pogroms against the heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in the country’s far western Arakan state led to more than 280 deaths. Even today, some 140,000 Rohingya languish in squalid displacement camps, where they struggle to receive medical care or sufficient food.

The government maintains the fiction that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh — when, in fact, they have lived in Burma for generations — and so has painted the carnage as antimigrant in nature, with Buddhist Burmese merely resisting land grabs from Muslim interlopers. However, the violence that erupted in Meiktila last March — spreading to Shan state and even parts of Rangoon, the former capital and biggest city — did not involve the Rohingya, and therefore suggests that religion rather than supposed land scarcity is fostering this simmering acrimony.

An extremist Buddhist movement known as 969, led by the charismatic monk Wirathu, has been gathering steam in recent years, and portrays Burma’s Muslim population as intent on conquering the nation through rampant propagation. The group’s hate-filled rhetoric speaks of “protecting” Burmese women, and it has led to calls for the boycotting of Muslim businesses. Naturally, it enthusiastically champions the proposed discriminatory legislation.

“We found on the ground in almost every township that there are [Buddhist] women who were forced to convert to another religion,” Wirathu told the Irrawaddy in January. “We need to have an interfaith-marriage law to protect them.”

Ashin Gambira, a former monk who spent four years as a political prisoner after fronting the 2007 pro-democracy Saffron Revolution, believes Wirathu is being used as a political tool. “The Burmese government is always trying to cause unrest among the Burmese people,” he says. “The government supports and donates money to 969.”

Robertson says anti-Islamic feeling must be seen in light of elections in 2015, in the run-up to which various elements “are trying to whip up divisive sentiment to garner support, which is really dangerous and ill advised.”

Tellingly, when Thein Sein told the U.N. that the Rohingya would not be given citizenship and should be deported, his popularity soared and crowds waved banners extolling his steadfastness — adulation previously inconceivable for a former junta general. Presenting himself as the only feasible foil to Islamization would appear to be a naked political ploy on Thein Sein’s part, with his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party preparing to face off at the ballot box with the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Compounding matters, a new national census is about to begin, run by the U.N. Population Fund and the Naypyidaw government at a cost of some $75 million. The last official census in 1983 put the Muslim population at 4% of the total, although the many mosques and madrasahs to be found in virtually every Burmese urban center indicate this is a significant underestimate. (Experts suggest 10%.)

Unfortunately, the sectarian turmoil “could intensify if the results of the 2014 census shows non-Buddhist populations have markedly expanded since the last national census was held in 1983,” writes professor emeritus of Asian Studies at Georgetown University David I. Steinberg in the Asia Times. Such evidence would naturally bolster extremist arguments that social and population curbs on Muslims are needed.

Unfortunately, not even Suu Kyi — a human-rights icon after spending 15 years as a political prisoner — appears brave enough to speak out against the proposed legislation or to confront extremist elements. To do so would be political suicide. Last month, the NLD canceled a party meeting at the behest of a group of monks. The reason? Two of the four speakers were Muslim.

 

TIME Thailand

Child Slaves May Have Caught the Fish in Your Freezer

Workers from Burma land fish after a trip to the Gulf of Thailand Sakchai Lalit / AP

Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world, but much of the tuna, sardines, shrimp and squid it exports has been caught by victims of human trafficking

After two years toiling without pay on a Thai fishing boat, Sai Ko Ko fell ill. “[The captain] verbally abused me but I was so sick I couldn’t work,” recalls the 21-year-old. “He knocked me down, dragged me and threw me into the sea.”

Luckily, Sai Ko Ko was rescued by another vessel and ended up in an Indonesian immigration center. But countless other illegal Burmese migrants like him fair much worse. Many are mere children forced to endure slave-like conditions. And, shockingly, the fruits of their anguish continue to be unwittingly enjoyed by families across the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

Thailand is the third largest seafood exporter in the world. The sector was worth some $7.3 billion dollars in 2011, and around a fifth of the catch ends up on American dinner tables — particularly tuna, sardines, shrimp and squid. But the industry heavily relies on trafficked and forced labor on unlicensed vessels. Victims typically hail from Cambodia, Laos and, most commonly, Burma. Beatings and starvation are commonplace.

On Tuesday, the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) released a report detailing Sai Ko Ko’s plight and that of tens of thousands like him. Slavery at Sea calls on the Thai government, international community and consumers to demand “net to plate” traceability on all seafood products.

“Migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry, many of them trafficked illegally, are suffering terrible abuses and all too often are denied their basic human rights,” said EJF executive director Steve Trent, blaming endemic corruption, poor enforcement, inadequate victim support, unacceptable working conditions and deficient migration policy.

Much has been made of recent reforms in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, as the former pariah state transforms into a quasi-democracy following a half-century of brutal junta rule. But for many on the ground, especially myriad ethnic minorities, precious little has changed. Most of the 55-million population subsists on less than a dollar a day, and three quarters don’t have electricity. Promises of well-paid jobs in neighboring nations continue to entice.

Around three millions Burmese migrants currently live in Thailand. (When in May 2012 Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi made her first trip abroad for 24 years, she tellingly visited compatriots in Mahachai, a commercial fishing hub 20 miles south of Bangkok known as “Little Burma.”) Many would-be migrants, not possessing valid documentation, pay brokers several hundred dollars to arrange their passage over the border, with the promise of well-paying jobs upon arrival.

In reality, vulnerable individuals are sold to fishing boat captains for a huge profit, and must then work off several thousand dollars of “debt.” Thai immigration and law enforcement officials are often complicit in these deals. Prosecution of perpetrators is rare. Many migrants get sold from boat to boat and don’t see land for years, sleeping in the open and forced to take bizarre amphetamine cocktails to stay awake for days on end. Due to dangerous conditions and tortuously long hours, work-related injuries are commonplace, and many throw themselves overboard to their deaths as their only means of escape.

Even for young slaves who are rescued, there is no end to the nightmare. Aye Ko Ko, 17, was among 14 people rescued from a fishing boat last March only to spend the next year at a detention center. “No one helps us,” he told EJF in January. “No organizations come to see us, like they did before. Some people are tired of it all and just want to go home.”

Overfishing has compounded the problem. Back in 1961, fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand caught 300 kg (661 lb) of fish an hour. Fast-forward half-a-century, and they now pull in a measly 25 kg, says Greenpeace. Falling profits leads to a demand for cheaper labor. According to the International Labor Organization, last year the Thai fishing industry had a 50,000-worker shortfall, “both a cause and an effect of the abusive labor practices that are seen in the fishing sector.”

The Thai government says it is working on the issue. Thai Labor Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Boontharik Samiti told Associated Press that “all agencies have collectively come together in an effort to prevent this problem in a sustainable and long-term fashion.” But lack of progress in human trafficking has been noticed by the U.S State Department, which produces the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and this year will likely move Thailand to the worst of four categories. Restrictions on fish imports could follow as a consequence.

Andy Hall, a migrant labor expert based in Thailand and Burma, tells TIME that consumers hold the key. “People are still buying the fish from Thailand so there’s no really an incentive to get serious about this issue,” he says, adding that the enforcement resources available to the Thai authorities are “miniscule compared to the size of the problem.”

Hall highlights how pressure by Finnish retailers has led to a boycott in Thai pineapple products after similar abuses were highlighted. “We don’t see that kind of pressure in other parts of Europe, and especially not in the U.S,” he says. “Your average consumer in the West doesn’t have so much interest in where their products are coming from.” Human traffickers count on that apathy.

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