Still no hope in Myanmar's Rakhine state, say parents of refugees

SITTWE, Myanmar - Mr Kyaw Hla Aung, 76, walked slowly and painfully around his house made of wood and rattan. ''Show this to my son,'' he said with a laugh as I filmed him.

The Rohingya Muslim leader, who has been in and out of jail for years, has seven children - five of them are abroad and they are not coming back.

His house is between a Rohingya village and a camp for internally displaced Rohingya, in a vast area outside Sittwe guarded by police checkpoints. Just up the road, the Thet Kay Pyin camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) has been home to around 5,000 Rohingya since 2012.

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There are around 1 million Rohingya out of a population of up to 3 million people in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Repression of the Rohingya has spawned steady out migration through the years, and occasional waves of refugees – over 100,000 since 2014 alone.

Mr Kyaw Hla Aung's previous house in the city of Sittwe was burned down in 2012 by a Rakhine mob. But he is staying on because he wants to set an example to the others. If he flees, they would as well.

At the Thet Kay Pyin camp, conditions are squalid. Makeshift houses huddle together in rows over open drains thick with raw sewage. Water is drawn from hand pumps.

There are some vegetable and tea stalls, and the mosque is a long, low hut. Men wash in a nearby pond before prayers.

Rohingya Muslim leader Kyaw Hla Aung is staying put in Sittwe, Myanmar, even though five of his six children are living abroad and do not want to return home. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH


A crowd of children pressed around me as I sat down with a group of women, including some whose sons left for Malaysia last year.

One of them, Madam Asiya Khatoum, who lost her home in Sittwe, has eight children. The oldest, a 17-year-old boy, vanished one night late last year, she said.

Madam Asiya Khatoum sold everything she had to raise money for her teenage son. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Some two weeks later, she claimed, he called her from a human trafficker's camp in the jungles of southern Thailand. He said the traffickers demanded US$2000 (S$2,820) for his release.

She scrambled for weeks, even selling the rations she got from the World Food Programme before she managed to raise the money.

It was given to the smugglers who went to the camp frequently and offered trips to Malaysia. They handed it up the chain to the traffickers, who let her son go. Weeks later, he called from Kuala Lumpur.

A second woman whose son had similarly left home also received a call from traffickers in Thailand. But she could not raise the money and has not heard from her son since. He was just 13 years old.

Still, when asked, most of the young men in the little crowd that had gathered around us said they would rather brave the boats on the Bay of Bengal and the human smugglers, than stay in Sittwe where there is no future.


The Rohingya Muslims are the scatterlings of South Asia. After the post-colonial boundary separated what was then East Pakistan - which morphed into Bangladesh in 1971 - from Myanmar, the Burmese state said the Rohingya were immigrants from Bangladesh and should go back there. East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, however, said they had been living in Myanmar for generations so they belong there.

There are around one million Rohingya out of a population of up to three million people in Rakhine state, mostly Buddhist Arakanese who have a deep fear that the Rohingya were out to swamp them and to islamise the state.

The Rohingya are not recognised as one of Myanmar's 135 official races. Repression in Rakhine state has spawned previous waves of refugees, on top of steady migration through the years.

Up to half a million Rohingya live in Karachi, Pakistan. Bangladesh has close to 300,000 registered and unregistered Rohingya refugees in camps with permanently dire conditions, especially for those not in formal camps. There are tens of thousands of Rohingya in Malaysia.

Since 2014, more than 100,000 may have left the coast of Rakhine and neighbouring Teknaf in Bangladesh. The number includes Bangladeshis. A crackdown earlier this year on traffickers in Thailand has temporarily disrupted the smuggling route, but there is still a great demand for the boat passage.


One of Mr Kyaw Hla Aung's sons slipped away to Bangladesh in 2006 and took a boat to Thailand. Now he lives in Thailand, scraping a living and working on human rights and trafficking issues. He may never see the green fields of Arakan again, but he accepts that and may never return. His father does not expect him to.

Mr Kyaw Hla Aung's son looking out from his balcony in Bangkok.. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

''There are no jobs here, there is nowhere to go. There is no education. So how can these people live here,'' Mr Kyaw Hla Aung said.

The smuggling chain is well oiled.

In Bangkok, his 37-year-old son consented to an interview but did not want to be photographed or have his name revealed, only saying cryptically: "I have enemies.''

But he spoke at length about his journey which began on Sept 1, 2006 - a date that was etched in his mind, he said with a smile.

He crossed the Teknaf river to Bangladesh where he spent six months but failed to get a Bangladesh passport. He found out that it would cost 40,000 Thai baht (S$1,559) - at 2006 prices - to get a boat out. He gave up and was planning to return to Sittwe when a smuggler relented on the price, charging him just 12,000 taka (S$216) because he was a friend of the family.

He took the boat, was arrested twice by Myanmar police and coast guard near Tavoy, and then towed out by them to the maritime border with Thailand.

"The tow was through the night. In the morning the Myanmar coast guard told them to 'head straight, and in a few hours you will come across Thai fishing boats, and you can ask directions from them', '' he said.

It worked out as planned, and Thai marine police and navy ships came out to intercept their boat near Phang Nga. It had been a 12-day journey since they left the shores of Bangladesh.

He was taken off with the others - 67 in all - and spent days shuttling between immigration detention centres in Thailand.

Then they were sent to cross the border back to Myanmar at Mae Sot in Thailand. But right across the border, human smugglers were waiting and organised the Rohingya into groups, asking how much they would pay to get back to Thailand or travel down to Malaysia.

It was all settled for 3,000 baht (S$117) and Mr Kyaw Hla Aung's son crossed the border back into Thailand, walking for hours through the jungle, under the cover of the night. He finally made it to Chiang Mai, and spent the next couple of years studying in a local university.

Today, he lives in Bangkok and keeps track of smugglers and traffickers, trying to help victims and surviving largely on donations and payment for translation work.

He has only returned to Myanmar once, in 2008, as a delegate at an official conference, and got a Myanmar passport in Yangon. That was the last time he saw his father, who was in Yangon at the time. He did not go to Sittwe.

He has accepted that he may never go back to Sittwe - but he also has no desire to do so.

Asked if he misses Sittwe, he said he did not.

"I do want Sittwe, and the whole society including Rakhines, to develop'' he said. ''They need development. If there is development, the people will change their minds.''

"But, I don't miss it,'' he said.

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