Amid continued communal strife in Myanmar, Muslim women and children are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations that have yet to be adequately recognized and addressed. This post glimpses the related issue of human trafficking.
By way of background, Burma's record on human trafficking has prompted the United States to place it on a Tier 2 Watch List for the past two years. The Watch List is reserved for countries that fail to comply with minimum standards -- from preventing trafficking to investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of the crime to protecting victims -- as set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
In Myanmar, security forces have subjected both Muslim men and women to forced labor. Women, however, have been reportedly forced into prostitution and other forms of slavery as well. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of State 2012 human rights report, Burmese officials have reportedly kidnapped Rohingya women and forced them into slavery on military bases.
Burmese security forces also systematically rape and assault women and girls which also contributes to human trafficking and exploitation.
Representative are experiences like Sakinah Kahtu's, an 18-year-old Rohingya girl forced to leave her village in Rakhine State due to worsening sectarian violence to travel with human traffickers by sea to Malaysia together with other fleeing Muslims.
Her parents feared that if she remained, the Burmese security forces might sexually assault her, as they have a number of others, or may otherwise subject her to forced labor. In hopes of securing her safety, they paid traffickers nearly $300 to transport her to Malaysia.
Kahtu travelled by sea for 15 days in a vessel that carried approximately 500 passengers, including 60 women and children. She received one meal per day during her ordeal. Prior to arriving in Malaysia, however, Kahtu's traffickers detained her in Thailand for three days.
There, a stranger and fellow Rohingya paid $2,520 to secure her release and complete her journey to Malaysia. In return, Kahtu's fellow villagers allowed the young man to wed her.
Notably, many do not make it to their ultimate destination because they are arrested en route and detained by authorities in Thailand. Women and children detained at government run detention centers remain vulnerable to traffickers who have gained access to the buildings, where detainees should theoretically enjoy official protection.
Such traffickers may promise detainees reunification with family members, but after smuggling them out of the centers, rape the unsuspecting victim(s).
Such human rights violations have penetrated Myanmar's borders with neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Bangladesh, in other ways as well. Both countries have been forced to absorb the swelling numbers of Rohingya refugees fleeing widespread and systematic religious and ethnic persecution in their native land. These refugees include increasing numbers of women and children.
Indeed, anti-Muslim sectarian clashes initially resulted in thousands of Rohingya men fleeing Burma in search of work and refuge; however, with communal violence escalating since June 2012, Rohingya women have begun fleeing the country together with their babies and children.
Illustrative is the sectarian violence that afflicted Myanmar's Arakan State in June 2012, leaving tens of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children displaced. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar as a result.
In fact, between June 2012 and May 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found approximately 27,000 people fled Myanmar. To help place these figures in proper perspective, during the same time period one year earlier in 2011, an estimated 9,000 people are believed to have fled.
Moreover, approximately one-half of those leaving Rakhine State's capital, Sittwe, where living conditions have worsened with many living in squalid displacement camps, are women and children. Pursuant to the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Act, the Burmese government does not recognize them as citizens and deprives them of proper identification documents. Given their "stateless" status, women and children are highly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding all of this, Thai and Burmese efforts to combat trafficking have been less than vigilant. For example, the Thai government has not investigated or prosecuted trafficking gangs and they continue to operate with impunity. Nor have Thai officials determined why traffickers can access women and children in the detention centers described above.
Thailand should exercise much more vigilance in identifying, investigating and prosecuting all those that facilitate trafficking. In the instance of organized criminal elements, officials should trace, freeze and confiscate related proceeds and provide unconditional assistance to victims regardless of their citizenship status or religious or ethnic identities. Thai officials should also address the demand-side factors contributing to the exploitation of women and children within their borders.
As to Myanmar, it prohibits human trafficking vis-à-vis its 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law. But, its efforts to combat trafficking internally have been lacking, as evidenced by the egregious conduct of its own security forces depicted further above.
Moreover, Myanmar will remain a source country supplying prospective trafficking victims (fleeing religious and ethnic persecution) until it effectively addresses the underlying causes of persistent communal violence and abject poverty confronting its minority Muslim population.
As articulated by U.S. House Resolution 418, introduced by U.S. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), Burma must end its persecution of all Rohingya people.
Indeed, the country's credibility as an aspiring democracy is interconnected with the status of the very population it continues to persecute.
For an in-depth look at the Rohingya experience in Burma more generally, read"The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar: Past, Present, and Future".
Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Sean Lin and Abhilash Chandra are seen in an interview with The Malay Mail Online in Kuala Lumpur April 24, 2017. — Pictures by Yusof Mat IsaKUALA LUMPUR, April 28— A small group of independent film-makers have used the human trafficking crisis in South-east Asia as the backdrop for an ambitious local science fiction action production.
The makers of Cahaya Terakhir (The Last Light), which is about a woman from another world who has to battle against ruthless human traffickers in order to return to her home, are targetting an international audience.
The film, which has been developed so far as a concept trailer, is helmed by Abhilash Chandra, a 29-year-old Malaysian producer who is currently in the production team for the sequel of Polis Evo, which is the highest grossing Malaysian film to date.
Jorik Dozy, a Singapore-based Dutch visual effects artist who has worked in numerous high profile Hollywood films including the upcoming Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, will co-direct.
Another Malaysian, 26-year-old Sean Lin, who works for a construction company in Klang, is producing Cahaya Terakhir under the New Frontier Pictures banner.
Sean Lin, 26, poses for a photograph after an interview with The Malay Mail Online in Kuala Lumpur April 24, 2017.The trio won a grant from the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) to develop and conceptualise the project last year, and have taken the route of developing a two-and-a-half minute concept trailer to now pitch their project to investors and also attract interest from a larger audience.
They hope that the concept trailer would help them secure the financial backing required as they aim to start production early next year.
“I always wanted to make a science fiction film that is unique to South-east Asia… a science fiction film with real world issues. It is a commercial film with very topical issues,” Abhilash told Malay Mail Online in an interview recently.
Abhilash has been working on the script for Cahaya Terakhir for the past year, and his collaboration with Lin started while both of them worked on the set of Netflix’s Marco Polo when it was filmed in Johor three years ago.
Abhilash, an alumni of New York University’s Tisch School of Arts in Singapore, met Jorik while producing a couple of projects when he was based in Singapore.
Abhilash Chandra speaks during an interview with The Malay Mail Online in Kuala Lumpur April 24, 2017.The concept trailer was shot in Broga, Negri Sembilan and Carey Island, Selangor last year.
“It took three days to shoot, but it took us four months to prepare,” said Abhilash. But having made it with a “minute budget”, he is confident that even with modest resources, making a Malaysian film that will impress a global audience is not impossible.
“For us, the audience must feel something real and connect with the film, and we would be proud if we manage to do that. What we are doing should not only be good enough for Malaysia, it has to be good enough for the world,” he added.