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Yamuhamat, a Rohingya seeking to start a new life on Phuket

Phuket's New Rohingya: Bought from a Smuggler

Wednesday, February 4, 2009
A version of this article appears in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, February 4. Names have been changed.

LAST MONTH, officers of the Thai army and navy convened a meeting with the Governor of Phuket, Dr Preecha Ruangjan, to warn that Rohingya boat people might start arriving on the resort island's shores as their annual migration moved farther south from established landing points.

But the Rohingya have already arrived on Phuket - and they are living unnoticed on the fringes of the island's society. Some have been here for years.

The South China Morning Post met one Rohingya man, Yamuhamat, 22, who arrived in Phuket in December after a roundabout journey that he said began in Myanmar in November and included stints in Thai police custody and a jungle camp, run by people smugglers, in the southern province of Narathiwat.

Now he lives discreetly in Phuket after he was ''purchased'' from the smugglers by Dalet, a fellow Rohingya who has lived in Thailand for 25 years.

The presence of Rohingya in Thailand is a contentious issue, amid the controversy about Thailand's treatment of the boat people.

Dalet and Yamuhamat have an ambiguous relationship.

While Dalet and his friends appear sincere about acting in Yamuhamat's interests, the young man was ''purchased'' from a people smuggler.

In so doing, Dalet fuelled the illegal system that sees so many Rohingya set out on their perilous journeys.

The Muslim Rohingya are a stateless ethnic minority from the border areas between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Every high season thousands of them set out in barely seaworthy boats in search of a better life in Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand.

Dalet paid 36,000 baht to buy Yamuhamat and another young Rohingya man, who is now living with Dalet. He first heard of their situation when he was contacted by Yamuhamat's parents, whom he already knew.

Dalet, 45, said the money was raised by the local Muslim community, who were keen to see the Rohingya secure a better life for themselves. It is a version of events supported by another Thai-speaking Phuket-based Rohingya.

Speaking via Dalet as a translator, Yamuhamat said: ''I didn't know who had bought me. The broker just put us in a minivan.

''He said: 'Some guy will pick you up and maybe have a job for you.' Only when I got to Phuket did I meet Dalet and realise he was helping me.''

Yamuhamat now lives with a friend of Dalet, another long-term Rohingya resident of Phuket, in a small house.

Dalet, who runs his own food stall, is looking for work for Yamuhamat but the fact that he speaks no Thai was proving a problem, he said.

Dalet, who resides legally in Thailand by virtue of his Thai wife, hopes to help Yamuhamat set up his own food stall, but he can't afford it at the moment.

For his part, Yamuhamat appears content, although our conversations are filtered via Dalet, who speaks both Thai and the Arakani language of the Rohingya.

At one stage, Dalet patted Yamuhamat on the belly. ''Now he is fat,'' Dalet said. ''You should have seen how thin he was.'' Yamuhamat smiled.

There was no evidence that Yamuhamat was being held against his will. Dalet and the man hosting Yamuhamat said he was free to leave any time he wanted, and the household situation seemed little different from that of an extended family.

It appears that Yamuhamat and his fellow Rohingya have been fortunate. Some Rohingya who go through the same system end up as indentured labourers, working to pay off the money that their new employer paid to secure them from the people smugglers.

Narathiwat has a network of brokers who all worked for the one Thai overseer, Dalet said after talking to Yamuhamat. ''The broker doesn't care who pays,'' Dalet said.

Rohingya who do not have family or contacts to pay the broker's fee are sold to fishing-trawler captains or businessmen. Dalet said the Rohingya participated willingly.

''If the owner of the fishing boat is kind, and most Thais usually are, the Rohingya will earn his freedom quickly,'' Dalet said.

Dalet said he and Yamuhamat were among about 20 fellow Rohingya who now live on Phuket, some legally, some illegally.

''There have actually been three boats of Rohingya that reached Phuket in the past two years,'' Dalet said. ''All the people on those boats were arrested and trucked back to the border.''

A policeman in Patong agreed that boatloads of immigrants had been arrested and returned after being treated simply as ''refugees from Myanmar'', rather than Rohingya.

Dalet said he hoped to be able to buy more Rohingya, if he could. Although he is poor, he said it was the only way to help them.

Yamuhamat's story:

IN NOVEMBER Yamuhamat left Arakan state in Myanmar with 120 other Rohingya. They had all contributed to buy two boats to take them on their self-funded journey out of Myanmese waters.

Eventually they arrived in the border port town of Ranong, having sailed without maps or any particular destination in mind, he said.

But Thai police arrested them and held them in jail for 10 days, after which they were taken offshore in a boat then transferred to a second vessel.

It is unclear who was in charge of the first boat, but the second belonged to a people trafficker. They were transported down the coast to southern Thailand, then trucked overland to the province of Narathiwat.

Although this was not part of their plan when fleeing, the Rohingya did not resist and Yamuhamat remained in the people smuggler's jungle camp for 20 days.

A man armed with a rifle patrolled the fenced pen in which the boat people were corralled.

During this time, some in the group were sent off to Malaysia or elsewhere in Thailand, fulfilling orders for workers placed with the broker.

Yamuhamat heard that most of his compatriots were being sent to work in shrimp processing factories.

It was at this stage that Dalet intervened, having heard about the situation of his fellow Rohingya. Once Dalet had transferred 36,000 baht into the smuggler's bank account, Yamuhamat and his companion boarded a minivan and were driven to Phuket.

Back in Arakan, Yamuhamat left a wife. Their arranged Muslim marriage is not officially sanctioned by the Myanmese government.

Yamuhamat's parents fish for a living. He said they worked seven days a week, but three days' income goes to Myanmese soldiers as protection money.

Dalet's story:

DALET HAS been in Thailand for 25 years. He arrived overland at the Mae Sot border crossing with a group of 25 Rohingya who dispersed across the country.

Dalet came to Phuket by bus but soon headed for Malaysia, where he expected more sympathy and to feel more at home among fellow Muslims.

''It didn't work out that way,'' he said. ''The Malaysians were actually not as friendly or sympathetic as the Buddhists are in Thailand.''

After a month in Malaysia he returned to Phuket, where he eventually married a Thai Buddhist and settled down to raise three children.

The family survives on about 200 baht a day from a food-stall business.

''I was lucky,'' he said. ''I already had [identification] papers because I was at school in Arakan when the Burmese government declared us non-persons.

''But we were no longer permitted to have jobs or to continue at school, so I fled to Thailand.''

Making News Worldwide on February 4

Headline in the SCMP: Thais blamed by more boat people

We were set adrift in a boat without power, say newly rescued migrants

A boatload of nearly 200 Rohingya, claiming Thai authorities towed them out to sea and abandoned them in an unpowered boat, has been rescued by the Indonesian navy off Sumatra.

Indonesian navy Lieutenant Tedi Sutardi said the starving men were picked up after being spotted by fishermen at about 2am yesterday off the far northern tip of Sumatra.

''Fishermen found a wooden boat without any engine drifting in the sea with 198 Myanmar migrants on board,'' Lieutenant Sutardi told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

''The migrants said that Thai authorities towed them out to sea and set them adrift.''

Lieutenant Sutardi said the leaking 12-metre boat was falling apart and was held together by pieces of rope.

Headline in the Sydney Morning Herald: Survivors relive ordeal of being set adrift by military

MUSLIM Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma have detailed their harrowing ordeal after being rescued by the Indonesian Navy early yesterday, saying 20 of the 218 aboard their vessel died from starvation after being towed out to sea by the Thai military.

The asylum seekers have also relayed to Indonesian authorities that their rickety wooden boat was one of nine vessels towed out to sea, stripped of their engines and left to drift after making landfall on the west coast of Thailand about a month ago.

As many as 1800 Rohingya were set adrift with little food and water, twice the initial estimates, according to the account.

The BBC reports: Boat people rescued off Indonesia

A group of nearly 200 people has been rescued from a wooden boat adrift off the coast of Aceh after 21 days at sea, Indonesian officials say.

They are thought to be Burmese Rohingya - a Muslim minority group not recognised by Burma's military rulers.

It is the second group of Rohingya to arrive in Indonesia in a month.

The plight of the boat-people has been highlighted recently because of allegations those found in Thai waters are mistreated by the Thai authorities.

Indonesian navy officials said the small boat, which was so packed with people that many were forced to stand, was spotted by fishermen on Monday.

Those on board had run out of food and water, and more than 50 are being treated in hospital in Indonesia for severe dehydration.

One of the survivors, who gave his name as Rahmat, told the BBC that 220 people were originally on the boat but 22 had died at sea.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok says the fact that their boat had no engine suggests that they too were victims of the callous expulsion policy operated by the Thai military up until last month.

CNN headline: Thai military faces more 'dump-at-sea' claims

A Thai foreign ministry spokesman told CNN Tuesday that his government was aware of the report coming out of Indonesia.

''We have to listen to that but we need to verify, and there shall be no judgment made yet,'' Tharit Charungwat said.

Meanwhile, delegates from five countries - Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar - went to Thailand's Ranong province Tuesday, prompted by such allegations.

The Thai government has launched an inquiry. The Thai army has denied the allegations.

But after extensive questioning by CNN, one source in the Thai military confirmed that the Thai army was operating a dump-at-sea policy.

New York Times headline: Myanmar Refugees Rescued at Sea

Dozens of refugees from Myanmar, rescued by the Indonesian Navy after drifting aboard a wooden boat at sea for almost three weeks, are receiving treatment at a hospital in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesian officials said Tuesday.

About 200 refugees, all men, were found by a local fisherman on Monday afternoon. It was the second boatload of refugees from Myanmar to land in Aceh in the last month.

Interviews by the Indonesian Navy indicate that the men are part of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar who fled to Thailand in December.

Survivors from the first boat, which was found in early January and was also carrying about 200 men, told Indonesian authorities that they had been rounded up by the Thai military after escaping Myanmar, and then were beaten, towed out to sea and abandoned.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand denied the claims.

The survivors rescued Monday told navy personnel a similar story, adding that originally there was a flotilla of nine motorless boats that had been led out to sea by the Thais, containing about 1,200 people.

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Comments have been disabled for this article.


Buying one human life, you have opened the floodgates of human trafficking, as the smugglers will now bring you more people to "buy " for humanitarian reasons. You must think about the ramifications of such actions. You are now also a contributor to human trade.

Posted by A Nonny Mouse 1 on February 7, 2009 12:26

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