Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Rohingya: A people hidden in the jungle

Visiting the Thai-Malaysian border

This was real jungle with lots of trees that sprouted up to 50 meters straight up to catch a little light where their crown expanded. Thick lianas and parasitic plants growing around it. Withered leaves of half a meter mixed with bright red leaves covered the ground.
The trail was held in place by shallow roots, except for a stretch that was washed down, where we had to climb. There the vines and roots came in handy to hold on to. Traces of wild boar, thorny rattan, large butterflies, loud high-pitched chirping of insects - the forest was full of them.

We walked along a path through the Thale Ban National Park in the far southwestern corner of Thailand. According to the sign this was an evermoist forest, almost but not quite as impenetrable as the tropical rain forest that we had seen further south in Malaysia. This was an inhospitable area of swamps, mountains and jungle. That's why we had crossed the border with a cargo boat on the Andaman Sea.
But now we were near the only land border in the region, a small road with little traffic and certainly no public transport. The last 20 kilometres we had hitch-hiked with a border guard in uniform, in a big pick-up truck on his way to work. The National Park was two kilometres from the border with nothing but jungle between.

It was shocking, but not unimaginable, when we read in the newspaper a few months later that exactly here they discovered secret refugee camps where Rohingyas had been detained, extorted by traffickers and left for dead.

The boat people, refugees

Thailand and Myanmar share a long border, and some 150.000 Karen have been stuck for 30 years in refugee camps just across the border in Thailand, 1500 kilometres to the north. They are now a major destination for cultural visits and volunteer work by Western tourists. In contrast the Rohingya from western Myanmar are virtually unknown. They are not accepted because their religion is different from the majority, the Buddhists. They cannot flee over the border with Thailand through the jungle, but need to sail across the Andaman Sea. Their goal is Malaysia, where Muslims are the majority. But often their boats land in southern Thailand, where on their way to Malaysia they fall into the hands of human traffickers.

At open sea, their boats were chased or towed away by the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian coast guard. In May 2015 the case received so much international attention that Malaysia decided to allow them in temporarily.

Visiting Rakhine state

We were especially touched by this case since seven years ago we were in Rakhine, the Myanmar region where the Rohingya come from. For a short time the area was accessible when Myanmar was just beginning to be more open and the regime sought rapprochement with the opposition and the world. But soon a new domestic conflict was sought and found in this minority. Although they have lived in Rakhine for many generations or centuries, partly descendants of Persian and Arab traders, partly migrants within what was one British colony in the 19th century, they are now seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Looking back, it is astonishing that at that time we did not recognize the region as Islamic. Apparently they already had to keep a low profile. The streets of Sittwe were dominated by monks, nuns and temples. The scarce tourist did not bring prosperity to Mrauk U, which was clearly a dead poor corner of the country. Cell phones had no cover in Sittwe, Mrauk U did not even have a land line with the rest of the world.
Mrauk U was an ancient capital of a 16th century empire that stretched over parts of present Bangladesh (whose proximity was illustrated by imported cookies in the store) and the current Rakhine State. There were a lot of temples and pagodas of that time left, located half way between the village and the fields, sometimes dilapidated and overgrown. Again and again you'd see another temple on a hill or around the corner. The setting alone was stunning, but the chedis themselves were also beautiful.
We walked around, occasionally accompanied by groups of children who should have been at school. Further away from the village there were no more children shouting "bye bye" or calling after you, but vast fields and women who walked with baskets on their heads. There wasn't a meter of paved street, not a wall of stone. All was wood and bamboo and dirt yards.

A bizarre circle

This last paragraph of my 2008 travel diary, and the paragraph from my 2015 travel diary this piece started with, join a bizarre circle around two places that we visited in ignorance, and then briefly made the world news. Only to be forgotten again.

Amsterdam, May-July 2015, June 2016

1 comment:

Waterlily Unlimited said...

2017 update:
In 2017 the Rohingya made the world news more prominently, but alas only because their fate worsened. They were chased out of Myanmar and ended up at the Myanmar Bangladeshi border in horrible circumstances.
Some of the Thai human traffickers and slave drivers were arrested and sent to jail. High officials from the Satun police and government were involved. As well as through the National Park, there was a smuggling route via Koh Lipe, the tourist island – again invisible for outsiders.