Editor's note: The names of the former captives of illegal prison camps featured in this story have been changed to protect them from retaliation from human trafficking syndicates.
BANGKOK, Thailand — The horrors of the transatlantic slave trade are not resigned to history. They've been revived on creaky boats plying the Bay of Bengal.
In 2015, there is a trade in human cargo that evokes the barbaric middle passage to America in the 1700s. The chattel isn’t African captives but men and women called Rohingya, a Muslim ethnicity fleeing apartheid in Myanmar.
The Rohingya’s desperation makes them easy prey for traffickers who promise passage to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, for only $100. Instead, they’re crammed onto boats for a voyage to secret prisons in Thailand.
The trip can take weeks. Roasting under a tropical sun, the seafaring captives are often permitted only a handful of rice each morning. They may get a few swigs of water every other day. Those who starve to death are simply tossed into the surf.
For those who survive, more agony awaits. The Rohingya are smuggled onto Thailand’s beaches and forced into hidden jungle prison camps. Then the torture begins — daily beatings (and, for many women, rape) until relatives cough up more than $2,000 to spare their lives.
These death camps, and the boats that supply them, are perhaps the most dreadful places in all of Southeast Asia.
“We were beaten morning and night,” says Hanif, 23, a scrawny Rohingya man who was stuck in a camp just nine months ago. He is now living illegally in Bangkok’s outskirts.
“They’d beat us to convince our families to pay the ransom,” Hanif says. “They’d also beat us randomly just to keep us weak so we couldn’t escape.”
Hanif is one of half a dozen death camp survivors interviewed by GlobalPost in Thailand. Their accounts are universally gruesome. All endured beatings, starvation and disease in the hidden prisons. All witnessed deaths at sea as well as in camps, where bodies are dumped into mass graves.
“Women in the camps have it especially bad,” says Salima, 30, who wasted away in a camp for months with her two children. “Maybe the guards spared me because I have kids. But younger girls were often handpicked and led into the jungle. They would return in pain asking, ‘Why? Why did I come to this terrible place only to lose my dignity?’”
In the camps, the captive Rohingya sleep in mud, under plastic tarps, inside wooden cages. Their food supply is a trickle of soggy rice. Every twitch, every plea for food, can be grounds for overseers to lash captives with bamboo rods.
The violence is used to impose maximum fear. Traffickers want their captives to be genuinely terrified when they press mobile phones to their faces and force them to call their relatives. The overseers will initially request ransoms as high as $4,500 but often settle for about $2,000. These are incredible sums for families who are already struggling under state-sanctioned apartheid back home.
The indignities don’t stop there. According to Hanif and other former captives, they were groomed to treat the kingpin of the trafficking syndicate that enslaved them as a revered figure. The man’s name, they say, was Anwar.
“We were forced to call him ‘Sir Anwar,’” Hanif says. “We had to stand up straight and salute him. We were taught to show him honor.”
As relatives back home in Myanmar scramble to raise cash — usually by selling off farmlands and resorting to loan sharks — the prisoners waste away. Their limbs become skinny as twigs. Purplish welts begin to cover their bodies.
“My children’s bodies started to shrink,” says Salima, whose kids were around 4 and 6 years old when she was imprisoned just one year ago. “At one point, the guards asked if I was ready to throw my kids away.”
The lives of Salima and her two children were spared for $2,200. But others succumb to torture and the elements before their families can fulfill traffickers’ demands. Just like on the boats, corpses accumulate in the camps, and bodies pile up in mass graves.
Almost every detail emerging from Thailand’s death camps is shocking. But equally shocking is the fact that Thai authorities have known about the camps for years.
“There are actually camps still operational here in Thailand,” says Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a nonprofit watchdog group that has specialized in documenting the plight of Rohingya Muslims. “We’ve even documented camps that held upwards of 2,000 people with captives moving in and out on a daily basis.”
“Authorities have known about these camps for a long time,” says Smith, who recently testified about the Rohingya trafficking crisis to the US Congress. “The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge. The problem is a lack of political will to stop this.”
Thailand — like most countries — treats the Rohingya as an unwanted nuisance. That is unlikely to change: The military government’s official policy upon spotting Rohingya at sea is to offer food and fuel so they can make it to Malaysia.
Unofficially, some Thai authorities have received kickbacks from traffickers for allowing camps to proliferate. As far back as two years ago, the military acknowledged soldiers’ direct involvement in Rohingya trafficking but claimed — as top brass often do — that the corrupt officers only amounted to a few “bad apples.”
Only now are authorities exposing these death camps with vigor.
“For years, we’ve warned the government so they can crack down. And they’ve been silent,” says Maung Kyaw Nu, chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand. “Why does the government only take action now? After we’ve lost so many lives? They could have done this years ago and prevented so much tragedy!”
Ongoing raids have turned up nearly 80 Rohingya prison camps along with dozens of corpses in mass graves. A purge of Thai officialdom connected to the trade has resulted in more than 60 arrest warrants so far. Panicked traffickers, fearful of getting arrested, have abandoned incoming boats and left an estimated 8,000 people adrift at sea. Boats packed with hundreds of Rohingya (as well as Bangladeshis) have already drifted onto the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Police have also locked up at least one alleged trafficking kingpin. His name is Anwar. Former captives speaking to GlobalPost were shown his photo, which was taken in police custody. They say he’s the same Anwar who operated their jungle camps.
“That’s him,” says Sabir, a 24-year-old who was living in the camps less than a year ago. “He’s a blood sucker.”
By now, the ruthless nature of Rohingya trafficking syndicates is known to all — including Rohingya living on their native lands in Myanmar.
But their attempts to escape via the Bay of Bengal will likely continue. All of the Rohingya interviewed by GlobalPost were aware that the sea journey might kill them. Their decision to accept this risk is a testament to their bleak lives in Myanmar.
“We already live so close to death back home,” Salima says. “We’re mistreated by police. We’re unable to feed ourselves. Women get, you know, dishonored. We think, ‘Well, I might as well risk dying at sea.’”
In Myanmar, Rohingya have endured oppression for decades. Even Rohingya with long family histories in Myanmar are written off as Muslim invaders from neighboring Bangladesh. Their ability to marry, work and travel is restricted by authorities. More than 150,000 have been violently routed into refugee camps where food and medicine is scarce and death is routine.
Even those living outside these squalid camps are frequently preyed upon by soldiers and police. “We’re always forced to work for police, as porters, for zero pay,” says Hassam, 38, who was smuggled into Thailand within the last 12 months. “How can I feed my kids if I’m always working like a slave for someone else?”
The Rohingya mass exodus into the Bay of Bengal may be the largest refugee migration in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War. And yet, according to Smith, the true number of Rohingya who’ve fled is “significantly higher than current estimates.”
Fortify Rights believes that a commonly cited United Nations figure of 130,000 Rohingya fleeing by sea since 2012 is far too low and doesn’t cover waves of departures from some of the most persecuted towns and cities in Myanmar. According to Smith, the number could be as high as 250,000.
As this nightmare has played out, the Rohingya crisis has gone from obscurity to a cause célèbre in the West. Last year, it also prodded the United States to plunge Thailand into its lowest human-trafficking ranking — a black mark shared by North Korea and Zimbabwe.
Pressure from the White House is at least partly responsible for Thailand’s ongoing raids on death camps and arrests of complicit officials, Smith says. “Thailand is realizing it needs to clean up its act,” he says. “But we’ve seen this in the past. A few arrests are made and there’s a failure to convict. Authorities should realize that the international community is watching and expects more.”
As for the fate of traffickers captured by authorities, the Rohingya interviewed by GlobalPost have a suggestion.
“Put them to death,” says Salima, as her fellow Rohingya nod along. “Then take all the money they made and give it to us.”
This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.