TIME Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Burma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Thailand

Former Thai Prime Minister Starts Trial for Role in Rice-Subsidy Scheme

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, center, leaves the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, May 19, 2015
Thanyarat Doksone—AP Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the Supreme Court in Bangkok on May 19, 2015

"I am confident in my innocence," Yingluck told reporters

(BANGKOK) — Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra entered a plea of not guilty Tuesday at the start of a trial that could see her jailed for a decade, which critics say is part of a politically motivated campaign against her family.

Supporters chanted “Yingluck! Yingluck!” as the ex-premier entered the Supreme Court in Bangkok to be formally read the charges against her of dereliction of duty in overseeing a rice subsidy scheme that lost billions of dollars.

“I am confident in my innocence,” Yingluck told reporters. “I hope the court will grant me justice, and that everything will go according to due process under the law.”

Yingluck posted bail set at $900,000, or 30 million baht, and was ordered by the court not to travel outside Thailand without permission during her trial. The next hearing was set for July 21.

Yingluck was ousted from her post as prime minister by a court decision that came two weeks before the military staged a coup last May.

She is being charged with dereliction in overseeing the controversial rice subsidy program, which temporarily cost Thailand its crown as the world’s top exporter. The same charges also led to her impeachment in January by the military-appointed legislature, which banned her from politics for five years.

She faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, a ruling that would deepen the country’s decade-long political crisis.

Her supporters see the case as part of an attempt by the pro-establishment elite to dismantle the political legacy of her family, which has repeatedly won landslide victories in several general elections over the last decade.

The program was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party win elections in 2011, and Yingluck has argued it was aimed at helping poor farmers who were paid about 50 percent above what they would get on the world market. The program, however, racked up losses of at least $4.46 billion as the Thai government stockpiled mass quantities of rice. Prosecutors said Yingluck ignored multiple warnings from several state agencies about possible corruption — none of which has yet been proven in court.

Earlier this year, the National Anti-Corruption Commission recommended that the Finance Ministry sue her personally for at least 600 billion baht ($18.4 billion).

Thailand has been plagued by political turmoil that boiled over after the army ousted Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. That putsch was part of a societal schism that in broad terms pits the majority rural poor, who back the Shinawatras, against an urban-based elite establishment supported by the army and staunch royalists who see Yingluck’s family as a corrupt threat to the traditional structures of power.

Yingluck’s opponents argue the Shinawatras have used their electoral majority for personal enrichment and to subvert democracy.

Tuesday also marks the fifth anniversary of a bloody army crackdown against demonstrators backing the Shinawatras who had occupied downtown Bangkok for two months. More than 90 people were killed in the protests.

TIME Thailand

Jungle Graves in Thailand Spotlight the Plight of the World’s Displaced Peoples

Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province
Surapan Boonthamon—Reuters Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 5, 2015

Some 30,000 people fled their homes each day in 2014. Among them were many Rohingya

Just a stone’s throw from where Western tourists sip cocktails and bronze themselves on beaches in Thailand’s southern state of Songkhla, a macabre discovery has been made: skeletons buried in the jungle.

At least 26 of the human remains are believed to be those of Rohingya Muslims. They were murdered, it is assumed, by people smugglers after fleeing pogroms in western Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) for a new life in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

While thousands of members of this much persecuted community successfully make the perilous voyage on rickety boats, hundreds die en route and many more are held captive in jungle camps, often with the collusion of local law enforcement, until their friends or relatives cough up enough cash to buy their freedom.

As with the 18 mutilated bodies that washed up on Malaysia’s historic port island of Penang late last year, it seems likely that those recently exhumed didn’t have sufficiently affluent connections.

“Those who can pay the money are released within a few days, those who cannot pay must stay and every day they are beaten and traumatized,” Abdul Hamid, president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia, told TIME in Kuala Lumpur last month. “Witnesses from the camps say that every week there are three or four people who die from the torture.”

The recent discovery comes as a new report reveals that a record-breaking 38 million people around the world today have been displaced within their own countries by conflict or violence. The number is the equivalent to the combined populations of London, New York City and Beijing, and signals “our complete failure to protect innocent civilians,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Among them are Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, described by the U.N. as “virtually friendless.” They are denied citizenship in both Burma and neighboring Bangladesh and consequently struggle on both sides of this shared frontier, many in squalid displacement camps, where food, shelter and medical care are in scandalously short supply.

Their plight has worsened since dozens were killed and thousands of homes destroyed in sectarian violence unleashed by Burma’s Buddhist majority, which first erupted in October 2012.

But the Rohingya’s problems do not end even if they are able to leave Burma. The supposedly lucky 100,000 who have reached Malaysia face a difficult time on arrival. Only around 45,000 have UNHCR cards, as registration has been closed for over six months to all but newborn babies or dependents of existing refugees and newly arrived children. They receive no government handouts nor are they allowed to work, and so must make do with irregular construction jobs, where they are liable to further exploitation.

While state-sponsored violence is an aggravating factor in the plight of the Rohingya, their real curse is a lack of citizenship and thus constitutional protection in the land of their birth. Burma may have shrugged off a half-century of brutal junta rule, but the military still maintains tight control, and the Rohingya remain pawns of a slew of generals, who see inculcating antipathy towards the Rohingya minority — they are portrayed as Bangladeshi interlopers — as their best hope of retaining power in elections slated for October.

Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy party, refuses to unequivocally speak up for the Rohingya, calling their plight an “immigration matter,” despite that fact that many Rohingya families have histories in Burma for longer or as long as hers.

And so, as the U.S. re-engages with the Burmese government, and hails this impoverished nation’s significant strides toward democracy, those anonymous jungle graves are a grim reminder of the formidable challenges that remain, as well as of the vulnerability of all those forced from their homes.

TIME Thailand

Thailand’s 87-Year-Old King Makes Rare Appearance

THAILAND-POLITICS-ROYAL
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images Thai well-wishers hold portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej while waiting in front of Siriraj hospital in Bangkok on May 5, 2015

Thais lined the roads along the route, chanting "Long live the King!"

(BANGKOK) — Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a rare public appearance Tuesday to mark the 65th anniversary of his coronation.

All television stations carried the event live, as the 87-year-old monarch emerged in a wheelchair from a Bangkok hospital, where he has taken up residence, and was driven through the capital’s historic district to the Grand Palace.

Buddhist monks led prayers as the king watched, before an audience of government and royal officials.

Thais lined the roads along the route, chanting “Long Live the King!” The palace had not announced if Bhumibol would appear for the ceremony, but crowds had gathered in anticipation of seeing the monarch. Tuesday was a national holiday.

Bhumibol has been hospitalized since last October when he had his gallbladder removed. It was the latest ailment and hospitalization for the king, who has faded from public life over the past several years and on rare outings looks visibly frail and does speak publicly.

Thais hold great affection for Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. He was crowned on May 5, 1950, after coming to the throne in 1946 following the death of his elder brother.

While he is constitutional monarch with no formal political role, Bhumibol is widely revered and regarded as the country’s sole unifying figure. Many regard his as a father figure, and his December birthday is also designated as Father’s Day in Thailand.

Bhumibol’s near-disappearance from public life has coincided with a decade of political instability in Thailand. Worries about the king’s health and succession have contributed to the instability.

The heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not command the same respect and affection as the king.

Open discussion of the monarchy is constrained by a strict lese majeste law that makes criticism punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

TIME Thailand

The Thai Junta Has Replaced Martial Law With an Equally Draconian Security Order

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gets in his car after the merit-making ceremony on the occasion of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's birthday at Sanam Luang in Bangkok
Damir Sagolj—Reuters Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gets in his car after the merit-making ceremony on the occasion of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's birthday at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on April 2, 2015

The Land of Smiles appears to be sinking further into dictatorship

Martial law has been lifted in Thailand, but replaced with a sweeping new security decree that grants virtually identical powers to the junta.

On Wednesday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave his much-expected rubber stamp to General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s decision to invoke Article 44 of the nation’s interim constitution, by which “acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability” may be curbed.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams decried the Southeast Asian nation’s “deepening descent into dictatorship” since the May 22 coup d’état.

“Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers,” he said in a statement.

The new order grants powers to the military to arrest anyone for suspected crimes against Thailand’s powerful royal family, as well as those who are deemed to be jeopardizing national stability or violating the orders of the junta. The military has also been granted powers to seize assets, censor the media, and detain suspects for up to seven days without charge.

Anyone found guilty of flouting the order faces a year imprisonment.

Since seizing power, the military has also used — under the guise of protecting the royal family — the nation’s draconian lèse majesté law to target critics and political opponents.

On Tuesday, businessman Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee, 58, was jailed for 25 years for allegedly posting defamatory comments on Facebook concerning the monarchy.

“Thailand’s return to democracy remains uncertain as the junta retains tight grip amid the unending climate of fear,” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained Thai lawyer and visiting scholar at the University of London. “Martial law may be lifted today, but Thailand remains deeply sunk in unchecked military rule.”

TIME animals

Watch This Adorable Baby Elephant Have the Most Fun in a Bath Ever

It's like Dumbo before he learned to fly, only way cuter

Your dog or cat may hate bath time, but this baby elephant absolutely loves it.

In a video purportedly taken at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace & Royal Kraal in Thailand, the lumbering calf half-dives, half-falls into a tub barely big enough for him … four times.

The way he stumbles around, much to the delight of his giggling audience, makes it seem like there’s an alcoholic content to the liquid in that tub.

The little tusker even grabs the hose in his trunk and playfully runs away, but not before leaving behind a rather nasty surprise.

Read next: Watch 2 Koalas Embroiled in a Herculean Wrestling Match

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Thailand

Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra Impeached by Junta-Backed Legislature

Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets in a traditional way as she arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom —Reuters Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok on Jan. 22, 2015

The country’s first female Prime Minister is also facing criminal charges after being banned from Thai politics for five years

Thailand’s military-stacked legislature voted en masse on Friday to impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed through a court ruling days before the kingdom’s armed forces launched a full-scale putsch on May 22.

The junta-backed National Legislative Assembly voted by a margin of 190 to 18, with 11 absentions, to impeach Thailand’s first female Premier over a controversial rice-pledging scheme her administration passed after her landslide victory at the polls in 2011.

However, the ill-fated plan, which paid farmers above market prices for their crop regardless of quality, backfired and blew a $15 billion hole in the Thai economy.

On Thursday, Yingluck derided her impending impeachment and accompanying five-year banishment from the kingdom’s political landscape as a violation of her “basic rights,” during an address to the country’s Parliament.

The 47-year-old has kept a low profile since General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power and launched an unprecedented campaign to bridle dissent and quell a half-year of polarizing, and often deadly, street demonstrations.

Following Friday’s vote, analysts say the political persecution of Yingluck and her supporters will likely calcify the ever widening divide in the country between the rural and working-class masses, who largely back the populist Shinawatra political machine, and the royalist establishment based in Bangkok.

“They are trying to ban these people from politics for as long as they can so that there’s basically no opposition to whatever the military junta and its allies are going to do politically for the foreseeable future,” Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political analyst and popular blogger, tells TIME.

Yingluck also faces a maximum of 10 years in prison after the country’s attorney general pledged Friday to indict her for negligence and abuse of power over the same botched rice scheme.

The impeachment and imminent criminal prosecution of Yingluck now runs the risk of enraging the Shinawatra clan’s partisan supporters, better known as the Red Shirts, who have remained largely dormant in the wake of the coup and its accompanying crackdown.

“This will only exacerbate the political schism we have right now,” says Saksith.

Thailand has been bogged down in unceasing episodes of political discord since Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was first removed from power during a bloodless coup almost a decade ago. Political parties deemed loyal to Thaksin have been deposed through two putsches and three controversial court decisions since 2001, despite being undefeated at the polls.

“Today Yingluck joins her brother as another ‘undying political martyr,'” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Thai legal expert and visiting scholar at the University of London, by email. “While the Shinawatra camp may face some difficulties in the coming years, it has now become even more difficult for millions of Thai people to move beyond them.”

TIME Thailand

Tourists Are Reporting a Dramatic Surge in Harassment by Thai Police

A tourist policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khao San road in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters A policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khaosan Road in Bangkok on Jan. 19, 2012

The Land of Smiles? How about the Land of Shakedowns?

Mastercard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index recently ranked Bangkok as the second most visited destination in the world after London. Spend a few days this hedonistic metropolis and you’ll soon understand why, for it offers an almost unbeatable mix of culture, edgy nightlife, cheap shopping, comfortable hotels, warm weather and — who can say no? — Thai cuisine.

But since the May 22 coup d’état that saw the ouster of a democratically elected government and martial law declared across the country, many tourists and expatriates in Bangkok have fallen prey to a criminal practice. The victims have little recourse when reporting incidents to the police, because the perpetrators are police officers.

“If you go to Sukhumvit Road, you can see the police looking for tourists who are smoking or drop a cigarette butt, then they ask them for their passport and make them pay 2,000 baht [just over $60]. I see this happening all the time,” says anticorruption politician Chuwit Kamolvisit.

“[And] when the tourists come out of Soi Cowboy [a notorious red-light area], the police ask them if they’ve had drugs and then make them do a pee test on the side of the road. If they don’t want to do the pee test, they have to pay 20,000 baht [about $610].”

Being a former brothel owner, Chuwit’s word isn’t exactly gospel in Thailand. But his claims are apparently corroborated by dozens if not hundreds of first-person reports in the form of local newspaper articles, complaints to embassies, blogs and social-media postings. Some believe that the coup, by disrupting traditional avenues for corruption, has forced aberrant police officers to look for new targets.

On Dec. 10, British Ambassador Mark Kent tweeted, “Met Tourism Minister this morning. Covered range of issues, including reports of stop and search in Bangkok.”

The Twitter feed of Joe Cummings, the former Lonely Planet author who practically ​put Thailand on the backpacker map, is riddled with stories detailing police harassment and extortion. “Random police searches of foreigners in BKK is getting bad,” reads a typical entry dated Dec. 6. “Many reports of innocent tourists forced to pay bribes.”

Then there’s this scathing letter to the editor by tourist Reese Walker published Nov. 29 in the Bangkok Post: “Stopped, frisked and searched. When we asked what reason was for the search, police simply laughed at us. The police even asked my fiance to perform a urine test on the side of the road … [We] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Walker’s letter gives me a real sense of déjà vu because when I was assignment in Bangkok last month, I too became the victim of a police shakedown.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the upstairs area of a terrace bar in the Silom Road area having a late-night drink. At around 2 a.m. I called it a night and descended to the ground floor. There I saw half a dozen police officers searching the premises and interrogating the bartender, who was handcuffed on a chair. An officer detained me straight away. “What’s going on?” I asked, identifying myself as a journalist.

He made a menacing fist at me, which convinced me to pipe down.

About 15 minutes later, another police officer produced a bag of white powder, shook it near my face and accused me of buying it. I emphatically denied the claim. Meanwhile, other police officers began helping themselves to drinks from the bar. When the bartender protested, they kicked him in the shins.

Eventually, a police officer took me outside where a Thai woman told me if I paid the equivalent of $15,200, I would be released. I told her I hadn’t done anything and would not pay a cent. I was taken back inside, where officers had now detained another four Westerners present at the bar. They then took all five of us in taxis to a nearby police station without a word of explanation.

Over the next four hours we were individually forced to undergo urine tests for drugs, during which a policeman standing guard in the lavatory taunted me by saying, “You cocaine.” Images from popular books and a TV series on the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison penitentiary, the so-called Bangkok Hilton, flashed through my mind.

Next we were taken to a media room with powerful fluorescent lights. Exhausted and disheveled, having not slept the entire night, and with our urine samples lined in front of us, we were photographed in a setting that made us look guilty as sin.

Some time after dawn we were presented with a typed document — in Thai — and told to sign it. At this, I drew a line and demanded to speak with the Australian embassy. Only then did our tormentors back down, casually informing us we’d all passed our drug tests and would be released — if only we signed on the dotted line. I did so, but I also scribbled, “This is not my signature” on the document before walking back onto the steamy streets of Bangkok at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, traumatized but elated to be free.

During my detention, I identified myself as a journalist many times and asked for an explanation. None was given to me. After my release, I wrote to the official email address of the Thai police, but it bounced back. I copied half a dozen other government agencies, including the Australian embassy in Bangkok, which is supposed to have a police-liaison unit, but the only reply I got was from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which said the following:

“The Royal Thai Government and the Royal Thai Police have no such policy to detain, harass, abduct, threaten and drug test Western tourists in Thailand. On the contrary, the Royal Thai Government recognizes the huge importance of tourism and safety for all foreign tourists is an on-going priority for the country.”

One would think that would be the case. Tourism receipts and indirect tourism activity account for 15% of Thailand’s GDP — making it the largest sector in the economy. So why would police be allowed to make omelets from Thailand’s golden eggs?

The most popular theory is that low-ranking street cops, some of whom earn as little as $1 an hour, are seeking out new sources of income, because the military-led government has begun cracking down on the street vendors who were the former targets of police shakedowns. Foreigners make convenient prey because they can be intimidated and, compared with the local population, are relatively wealthy.

“This explanation says the takeover has placed the police, traditionally at odds with the military, in some sort of frenzy amidst proposed restructuring that is likely to deeply disrupt the way the police have operated — both formally and informally,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut.

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar based in Japan who has had his passport revoked for criticizing the military-led government, thinks the practice has, paradoxically, a social-order element to it. Demanding random drug tests from some tourists, or asking for cash for a dropped cigarette butt, the thinking goes, shows other tourists that Thailand’s new rulers want to shed some of the seedier aspects of the country’s image abroad.

“The coup makers came with a mission. And that mission is to rebuild an orderly and clean society,” Pavin says. “They believe that by appearing to be serious about cleaning up society and creating an orderly atmosphere, it will attract more tourists. They even bizarrely announced a new campaign, Tourism and Martial Law, to promote the idea that society under martial law is pleasant.”

He adds: “It will not work, because they don’t understand either the logic of tourists or indeed the economy of tourism.”

Bangkok may have had 16.42 million visitors last year. But that number is down nearly 2 million compared with the previous year, with the drop attributed to the declining ruble and corresponding fall in the number of Russian tourists. Increased fear of flying in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies has been proffered as another reason, as has general uncertainty about the coup. If action isn’t taken to rein in the Thai police, tourist numbers may fall further still.

Read next: Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

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