MYIN HLUT, Myanmar (AP) — The small wooden boats leave the shores of western Myanmar nearly every day, overloaded with desperate Rohingya Muslims who are part of one the largest boat exoduses in Asia since the Vietnam War.
Helping them on their way: Myanmar's own security forces, who are profiting off the mass departure of one of the world's most persecuted minorities by extracting payments from those fleeing. A report to be released Friday by the Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights, and reporting by The Associated Press, indicate the practice is far more widespread and organized than previously thought, with Myanmar naval boats going so far as to escort asylum seekers out to larger human trafficking ships waiting at sea that are operated by transnational criminal networks.
"Myanmar authorities are not only making life so intolerable for Rohingya that they have to flee, they're also complicit in the process — they're taking payments and profiting off their exodus," said Matthew Smith, director of Fortify Rights.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing dismissed the allegations as "rumors," saying he has not "heard of anything happening like that." He said any naval boats approaching such vessels were likely aiming to help fishermen in need.
More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar's western shores by boat since Buddhist-Muslim violence erupted in Rakhine state two years ago, according to estimates provided by experts tracking their movements.
Chris Lewa, director of the advocacy group Arakan Project, said increasing desperation is behind a huge surge since Oct. 15, with an average of 900 people per day piling into cargo ships parked offshore. In Rakhine state, an aggressive campaign by authorities over the last few months to register family members and officially categorize them as "Bengalis" — implying they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh — has aggravated their situation.
The deepening crisis comes ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama to Myanmar next week for a regional summit, his second in two years. Obama, who has repeatedly pointed to democratic changes in Myanmar as a foreign policy bright spot, called President Thein Sein recently by telephone to express concerns about a reform process analysts say has been backsliding for months.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million that is still struggling to emerge from half a century of military rule, is home to an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya, and most are considered stateless. Though many of their families arrived from Bangladesh generations ago, almost all are denied citizenship by Myanmar as well as Bangladesh. In the last two and a half years, attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds dead and 140,000 trapped in camps where they live without access to adequate health care, education or jobs.
Smith said authorities in Myanmar have been profiting off the Rohingya for decades, and extracting money from those departing was only one way. If Rohingya residents attempt to travel to neighboring villages without permission from local authorities, they risk being arrested and forced to pay bribes for their freedom, he said. The restrictions are so intense that even those who repair their own houses — which often crumble during the rainy season — can be fined if they do so without permission.
Many of those fleeing today have been forced to sell everything they have, including precious belongings — land, cattle, gold — to human trafficking brokers who typically charge $2,000 for passage to Malaysia, a Muslim country. Many end up in secret jungle camps in Thailand, where they face extortion and beatings until relatives come up with enough money to win their release.
Thai authorities have also been accused of colluding with traffickers, but have denied the allegations.
"It's draining them economically," Smith said. "This is one of the poorest communities in Asia, one of the most abused, and this whole process is taking the little resources that they have left in exchange for even more abuse."
According to Fortify Rights, the brokers may collect sums averaging $500 to $600 per small boatload of asylum seekers, usually numbering between 50 and 100 people, and hand those payments to officials from Myanmar's police, navy and army. Police also have collected payments directly from passengers, the group said, adding that the Myanmar navy once demanded $7,000 from a trafficking ship offshore to allow them to leave.
The small boats transport the Rohingya to larger ships further out at sea that can carry as many as 1,000 people. The Fortify Rights report said the vast majority of those fleeing are routinely deceived, finding themselves "in the custody of abusive human trafficking and smuggling gangs, who detain them in conditions of enslavement and exploitation .... nearly all endure or witness torture, deprivation of food and water, confinement in extremely close quarters and other abuses throughout their journeys."
The Associated Press has documented similar accounts in Rakhine state. The family member of one Rohingya broker — since arrested on drug trafficking and other charges — said his boat set off from a small creek inland and had to pass a police post on the way to the sea where an obligatory payment had to be made. The family member spoke in Myin Hlut town on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.
The family member also recounted navy ships escorting Rohingya asylum seekers out to sea, as well as chasing them to extract more bribes. In another instance documented by AP, a dozen Myanmar soldiers boarded a vessel filled with Rohingya in the Bay of Bengal, bound their hands and bludgeoned them with wooden planks and iron rods before finally extracting money and letting them go.
Smith said the reason Myanmar authorities were exploiting trafficking networks themselves was simple: they can make tremendous money doing it.
"Assuming that just half the 100,000 who have fled in the last two years have been forced to pay $2,000 each for passage to Malaysia, we're talking about a trade worth $100 million, he said. "That's why we see government complicity. There is a perverse and disturbing economic element to all of this."
Pitman reported from Bangkok.