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Escape of People of Burma through the Tunnels of Death
by Rohingya Human Rights
2008-05-03 09:13:30
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On April 10, 2008, fifty-four Burmese migrants suffocated to death in a cold storage container while being smuggled to Thailand to escape appalling conditions in Burma. The tragic deaths occurred in Ranong Province on the west coast of Thailand when they were attempting to enter Thailand illegally in a group of 121 migrants including fourteen children being crammed into a sweltering container of 7 feet wide by 7 feet high and 20 feet long. Among the victims, 36 were women and 17 men, all apparently in their late teens or early 20s, and an eight-year-old child. Sixty-seven migrants survived the ordeal. Twenty-one migrants were hospitalized while the rest were detained by police for questioning.

On April 11, 2008, the Thai police charged 50 of 67 survivors of the disaster with the civil crime of committing illegal entry to the Kingdom of Thailand and accordingly they were convicted by a Thai court at the southern province of Ranong. The court ordered them to be deported to Burma and fined them $32. Since they had no money, they were sentenced to three days in jail.

Television reports showed police and volunteer rescue workers remove the bodies from the back of the seafood van and images of the cargo-like container empty except for a few pieces of clothing. The dead migrants—many wearing little more than T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops—were seen laid out on the floor at the storage facility of a local charity. Most of the bodies were buried in Hindad Graveyard in Ranong, while some others were taken away by their relatives for the funeral elsewhere.

They sneaked into Ranong province from Burma's Victoria Point by fishing boat at night and were then packed into the container truck for the trip. Ranong province is about 460 kilometers south of Bangkok just across from Burma's Victoria Point which is regarded as a major point of trade between the two countries. Victoria Point is Burma's fishing port city and Ranong shares a 170 km (105 mile) water and land border with Victoria Point. Thailand shares a 2,400 km (1,490 miles) porous border with Burma.

On March 3, 2008, the Sri Lankan navy rescued 71 people mostly the Rohingyas of Burma on board a 50-feet vessel which was found drifting in the Indian Ocean after its engine failed while the people were heading for Malaysia or Thailand seeking employment. Twenty other people died on board from a lack of water and food as the boat drifted for 12 days. The vessel was about 170 miles away from the eastern coast when the navy found it after being tipped off by fishermen.

However, the survivors of the disaster who witnessed the horror of how their companions were dying one by one beside them inside a locked, stifling and dark container, said the tragedy had not discouraged them from working in Thailand. They saw how horribly the hapless women, children and men were screaming and gasping for air. But such a tragedy does not discourage them to leave Thailand and to return to their near and dear ones. This is a manifestation of how tough the life is in Burma.

Thailand is a country of 64 million people with an area of 513,115 sq km with main exportable items of food including rice, seafood and live animals, office equipment, textiles and clothing, rubber. Burma is a country of 678,500 sq km and 57.6 million people with main exportable items of teak, pulses and beans, prawns, fish, rice, opiates, gems, metals, oil and gas and having many untapped natural resources. During the 46 years of unbroken despotic rule, the military regime has reduced Burma into one of the poorest countries of Asia with its economy riddled with corruption, stifling all dissent and wielding absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. Today, the average per-capita income of Burma is less than US$200 per annum and Thailand's average per-capita income is $3,737.

Everyday, the people of Burma have been escaping to the neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh in search of safety and food. Fleeing the economic collapse at home, many people come to Thailand in hope of finding work. They take menial and dangerous but low-paid jobs in sectors including construction, textiles and fisheries which are shunned by Thais. There are about 2 million migrants from Burma in Thailand. Out of them 141,000 refugees live in the camps, about 500,000 are registered migrants and up to 1,350,000 are unregistered. In Thailand, the migrant workers, legal or not, mostly earn about 3,000 baht ($100) a month which is half the payment required by law for Thais.

However, in an effort to redress the shocks and grievances over the death of so many people, the Thai police has beefed up its border checks and started crackdown on the human-trafficking gang who smuggle the people of Burma to Thailand, while there is no voice of the Thai government against the reign of hunger and terror which the military regime has let loose in Burma and which has been forcing these distressed people to flee to Thailand. So, the tightening measures of the Thai Police to stop smuggling is like cutting the head to remove the head ache - just closing the door for the groaning people of Burma so that they can not see any light of hope through the tunnel.

The Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is a staunch supporter of Burma's military junta. Returning from a state visit to Burma recently, the Thai Prime Minister said, "We want electricity. Burma has allowed us to build a dam. We want to sell goods there. Burma will build a port. Is that not good for Thailand?". Scolding the Western nations for picking on Burma's military regime, the Thai Prime Minister said that Westerners are overly critical of Burma and he has new found respect for the ruling junta after learning that they meditate like good Buddhists should and also that the country lives in peace, turning a blind eye to the series of atrocities that the military regime has committed even against the revered monks who are the dharma sons of Buddha. Such observations made headlines in the world press and seriously shocked the international peace loving community.

In fact, the unstinted support of the Thai government together with China, India and Russia has strengthened the repressive regime of Burma. The Thai government has been acting like a marionette for the junta defending them at all costs in an effort to boost ties and forge closer economic and development cooperation with the regime.

However, the incident of the death of the migrants on their way to seek a better life in Thailand, has drawn great attention of the international community to the plight of the people of Burma who have been continuously trying desperately to escape the economic collapse at home risking their lives.

There is no denying the fact that the incident is not merely a tragic accident but it is a consequence of the deepening crisis of Burma which has stemmed from the multi-dimensional disarray in the socio-economic and political fabric of Burma. Since the takeover of Gen Ne Win in 1962, the military regime has turned the land into a cauldron leading to the monopolisation of the state power and adopting a policy of "total elimination" toward all non-Burmese ethnic groups and the country's democratic opposition as a whole.

Resultantly, gross violations of human-rights, conflicts, persecutions and genocidal operations against the ethnic communities have forced several millions of people to migrate within and outside Burma. The estimated number of internally displaced people in eastern Burma in 2007 is at least 503,000; the number could, however, be more than a million. Refugee International estimated that there are 236,500 stateless individuals and an estimated 200,000 refugees scattered throughout the region. According to human-rights groups, there are about 1,350 political prisoners in Burma.

The "four-cuts strategy" of the junta in the ethnic areas - cutting off food, funds, intelligence and recruits to the ethnic resistance armies, have caused a havoc to the life and property of the ethnic communities pushing them to an inferno through systematic rape, executions, forced labour, forced relocation and the destruction of villages, crops and food supplies as weapons to devastate and demoralise targeted groups.

However, by unilaterally holding a referendum on the pro-military constitution on May 10, 2008 defying the international outcries to restore peace and democracy in Burma, the military regime is going to push the country into an endless quagmire of socio-economic and political crisis. Now, in the wake of the failure and frustration of the Gambari mission, it is important for the international community to re-evaluate its approach to Burma's ruling generals and also for the UN to review its Burma policy in order to put an end to the crisis in Burma which can be a solution to stop the people of Burma from their continuous escape through the tunnels of death.
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Ahmedur Rahman Farooq, Chairman, Rohingya Human Rights Council (RHRC). Address: 2975, Vang i Valdres, Norway .Contact:+4797413036 Email: rohingyas.rhrc@ yahoo.com, rohingyas.rhrc@ gmail.com

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