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Sea and Jungle, Dead or Alive (1)

Yu-Kyung Lee, 02 July 2015


Rafique, 37-year old Rohingya was presumed dead until recently. When he desperately called his family asking to pay his captors ‘ransom’ amount 2,600 Malaysia Ringit (620 Euro), his family seemed unhappy.

“Because my family already paid 8,350 Ringit (1,980 Euro) to my previous captors. But I wasn’t freed. That’s why my family has presumed I was dead.”

Rafique got a freedom early May, 6 months after getting on smugglers’ boat heading to Malaysia via Thailand. Yet, he doesn’t feel free to move around now in Malaysia due to severely fragile body. And he did not have any documentation.  

Freed, but no free

When Thailand has revealed 36 graves, 26 bodies and 7 ‘jungle camps’ in Padang Besar, Songkhla province near Thai-Malaysia border on May 1st, it has shocked the world albeit the story of ‘jungle camp’, where smuggling syndicates have kept Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants for ransom, has been reported multiple times in recent years.

The revelation was timely headlined as Thailand has faced with international criticism for its horrendous record of human trafficking. A Rohinhgy activist in Thailand, who’s been closely following smuggling cases for years, confidently estimated 2000-3000 dead bodies in total might have been buried in jungle area for the past 2 years or so. “There are 120 graves in public cemetery in Hat Yai (in Songkhla province)” He said.

Aung Mingalar, the last Muslim quarter in Sittwe Arakan State. The blockade of basic livelihood and aid for this Muslims ghetto and Internally Displaced Persons’ Camp on the outskirt of Sittwe has suggested why Rohingya Muslims from Burma (or Myanmar) have fled to get on the boat for perilous journey in the first place. Rohingya is stateless people, whom UN says one of the most persecuted minorities.
photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Jungle camp has shamed Thailand on one hand. Scenes of digging graves, wrapping dead bodies and showing skeleton and remains have built up the image that the country was serious about tackling trafficking on the other. One of the most striking ‘images’ was senior army adviser Lt.Gen. Manas Kongpan surrendered. The former head of Internal Security Operation Command (or ISOC) is facing with 13 chrages such as trafficking children, abducting and ransoming illgal migrants. He was at the center of scandalous episode in 2009, when Thai navy towed Rohingya boat to offshore setting it adrift having removed the engine on the orders of an ISOC colonel at the scene. According to eyewitness, the then colonel at the scene was today’s Lt. Gen Manas.

Malaysia too have discovered far more from a jungle in Perlis, the border state with Thailand on May 24 : 139 graves, 28 jungle camps and 106 dead bodies. The Malaysian government is planing of fence along the 2,666 km border with Thailand to prevent from trafficking occurred. On June 22, a month after the first discovery, funeral of 21 unidentified victims was held.  ‘Sombre farewell’ is what media entitle the funeral. Next day, Thailand has ‘completed’ the investigation into the Rohingya human trafficking. The Police Chief, Pol Gen Somyot Phumphanmuang said at a press conference that 119 suspects in total would be prosecuted. 56 of them had been arrested and 63 others still at large. Neither government has searched on either side of jungle anymore.

There has been a haunting question however. Where are those who could not afford ransom nor found in the latest revelation, which hasn’t last longer rather but one time public stunt?  

“We were 9 of us, incluing two women who were held for 6 months and two Bangladeshis. We escaped at night. If caught up by guards or even by tigers, we were ready to die.”

Rafique, whom this writer conducted extensive interview through a mediator over a week from end of May till early June, explained of his escape from what he remembered “Tiger Forest”, as the area was known to have Tigers. Escape was done shortly before the noisy crackdown early May. Although a month or so passed, Rafique believed “people still there”, dead or alive.

“People still there” A survivor haunted

Back in early May, two youths aged 14 and 17 found in jungle by Thai police reportedly said “the prisoners had been dispersed shortly before officers moved in on May 1”

However, no news ever heard that high number of people were found or emerged from mountaineous jungle. In fact, jungle hasn’t been paid much attention to, after focus of media was shifted to the sea, as like hadn’t been the sea ealier while shocking image of graves in jungle was at the center of the story. Some cautiously shared the view that people might have been trapped somewhere in forest, although situation was subject to change daily basis. 

“Perhaps the number would not be much high though, yes, there are people I believe”.

Cox Bazar, Port city in Bangladesh’s South East. The city has been home to hundreds of thousands Rohingya refugees who fled from Burma (or Myanmar) for decades.
photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Chris Lewa, director of <Arakan Project>, International NGO specialized in Rohingya, said as of early June.   

“About two weeks ago, we have heard that people kept in Thai side of jungle. Whether they are in camps or houses, we don’t know. But brokers were in Malaysia as there’re many people out there near border.”

Chris indicated that there’s no shortage of people who would ‘guard’ those held in the border area.   

It is understood that villagers, landlords, officials and security forces in the border area have all been involved in smuggling business to some extent. It’s far broader and transnational.

Chumima Sidasathian, Thai journalist for <Phuketwan>, has followed the the issue for longer period than any other journalist in the region. At a forum orgaznied by Foreign Coresspondent Club of Thailand on June 3, she responded to a question if there’s no more camp.    

“To my understanding, camps (might have been) destroyed by officers. But most of villagers have involved in the smuggling business. They have housed 40 or 60, or upto 100 of Rohingya in their house. I thought it’s dangerous.”

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