Reunions and ransoms: Going online in Myanmar's Rohingya camps

Reunions and ransoms: Going online in Myanmar's Rohingya camps
The authorities focused more on the registration of workers and fishing vessels, but did not crack down on the whole cycle of corruption and unregulated work in fishing industries that have dominated human trafficking and forced labour for more than three decades.

THAE CHAUNG, Myanmar - In this teeming camp for displaced Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, it's easy to overlook the internet huts. The raw emotion they generate is much harder to ignore.

The huts have bamboo walls, thatched roofs and - most importantly - dusty laptop computers that allow Rohingya to reestablish contact with relatives who have left on boats for Thailand and Malaysia. The internet connection comes via cellphones jammed into the cobweb-strewn rafters.

Smoke from the camp's cooking fires seeps in through the flimsy walls. Sound drifts out just as easily, obliging callers to share their personal dramas with everyone nearby.

What emerges is an intimate portrait of the Rohingya, a mostly stateless people living in often grim conditions in Myanmar, where many consider them illegal immigrants. The huts also provide an insight into the human traffickers who profit from the boat-people and the families they leave behind.

Today, there is joy: Fatima, 56, is blessing her son's choice of bride. Connected via a Skype-like app, he sits in an internet cafe in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, where he works as a cleaner.

"Of course you must marry her, if her skin is fair," Fatima tells him. Her son promises to introduce his sweetheart in a later call.

Other exchanges are tragic or sinister.

Many people arrive with scraps of paper with a cellphone number with a Malaysian country code. These belong to the traffickers who each year ferry thousands of Rohingya to Thailand, where they are routinely held for ransom in remote camps near the border with Malaysia.

Freedom costs $1,200 to $1,800 - a fortune for most Rohingya living on a dollar or two a day.

A trafficker is demanding $1,400 to release Rahana's 12-year-old son. Rahana, who like many Rohingya women goes by a single name, has already sent $1,100, but the trafficker wants the balance.

At least she is allowed to talk briefly with her son. Usually, after an initial "proof of life" call, traffickers do not let relatives speak until paid in full.

A man answers the Malaysian number Rahana calls. "Let me speak to my son," she tells him. A few seconds pass. Then a small voice says, "Mum?"

Rahana's eyes fills with tears and her jaw trembles. She quickly composes herself.

"I will send the money," she tells the boy. "Then they will let you go." After the call, Rahana is dazed and fretful. "My son told me he was sick," she says. "Whenever he eats, he vomits."

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