“Sold Like Fish”: Crimes against Humanity, Mass Graves, and Human Trafficking from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015

On April 30, 2015, Thai authorities announced the discovery of a mass grave in a makeshift camp in a forested area near the Malaysian border. The grave contained more than 30 bodies of suspected victims of human trafficking believed to be Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi nationals. Less than one month later, on May 25, the Royal Malaysian Police announced the discovery of 139 graves and 28 suspected human-trafficking camps in Wang Kelian, Perlis State, Malaysia.

Rohingya Muslims have faced military-led attacks and severe persecution in Myanmar for decades. Fortify Rights, the United Nations, and other organizations determined that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Myanmar authorities committed genocide against Rohingya—a crime that continues to today. These crimes forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees to flee the country in recent years. Most fled with hopes of finding sanctuary in Bangladesh and Malaysia, the nearest predominantly Muslim countries. This report documents how a transnational criminal syndicate—a group of individuals or organizations working together for common criminal interests—in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia preyed on Rohingya refugees, deceiving them into boarding ships supposedly bound for Malaysia.

Motivated by profit, between 2012 and 2015, a transnational criminal syndicate held Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis at sea and in human-trafficking camps on the Malaysia-Thailand border. Traffickers provided their captives with three options: raise upwards of 7,000 Malaysian Ringgit (US$2,000) in exchange for release, be sold into further exploitation, or die in the camps. Members of a syndicate tortured, killed, raped, and otherwise abused untold numbers of men, women, and children, buying and selling them systematically in many cases, in concert with government officials. Days after the mass-grave discovery in Thailand in 2015, Thai authorities arrested a Rohingya man from Myanmar named Anwar, also known as Soe Naing, for alleged involvement in a human-trafficking ring. Thai authorities went on to arrest 102 other suspects, including senior Thai government officials.

Thai authorities then began the largest human-trafficking trial in the history of Southeast Asia. On July 19, 2017, a newly established, specialized human-trafficking court in Bangkok convicted 62 defendants for crimes related to the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Malaysia via Thailand. Those found guilty included nine Thai government officials, including Lieutenant General Manas Kongpaen, a military general who reportedly received approximately US$1 million (3.49 million Malaysian Ringgit) in profits from the trafficking trade, including payments amounting to more than US$400,000 (1.39 million Malaysian Ringgit) in just over one month alone.

In contrast, since 2015, Malaysian courts convicted only four individuals of trafficking related offenses connected to the mass graves discovered at Wang Kelian. All those convicted were foreigners, including one Thai national, two individuals from Myanmar, and a Bangladeshi national. The Royal Malaysian Police reportedly arrested 12 police officers but eventually released them due to a lack of evidence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—the agency mandated to protect refugees—estimates that more than 170,000 people boarded ships from Myanmar and Bangladesh bound for Thailand and Malaysia from 2012 to 2015 and that the criminal syndicate organizing the vessels generated between US$50 million (174.5 million Malaysian Ringgit) and US$100 million (349 million Malaysian Ringgit) annually. Each ship reportedly earned traffickers an estimated US$60,000 (209,400 Malaysian Ringgit) in profits, according to UNHCR. The majority of people trafficked during this period were Rohingya Muslims; however, in late 2014 and 2015, the syndicate began targeting Bangladeshi nationals as well.

This is a joint report by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM, referred to in this report as “the Commission”) and Fortify Rights. It documents human rights violations perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims trafficked from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand and Malaysia from 2012 to 2015, the discovery of mass graves in Wang Kelian in Malaysia’s Perlis State, and the Malaysian authorities’ response to the discovery of the mass graves. It analyzes the violence against Rohingya within the framework of relevant international law.

Chapter I documents abuses against captives held at sea by human traffickers. Fortify Rights and the Commission documented how traffickers in Myanmar and Bangladesh deceived men, women, and children to board ships and how members of a criminal syndicate killed, raped, and tortured them at sea. Traffickers piled hundreds and thousands of people into repurposed fishing vessels and deprived them of adequate food, water, and space. Many victims died at sea at the hands of the traffickers or by suicide, jumping into open waters to escape the pain and suffering inflicted by their captors.

Chapter II documents human traffickers’ abuses in human-trafficking camps along the Malaysia-Thailand border, including in Wang Kelian and in human-trafficking houses in Malaysian and Thai towns and cities. Traffickers killed and buried the bodies of trafficked victims in mass graves; in some cases, forcing captives to bury the bodies. Traffickers also inflicted pain and suffering on their captives using pipes, bats and clubs, belts, wires, tasers, nails, threats and intimidation, and other means. “When I was unable to pay the money to the men, they poured boiling water on my head and body”, said “Rahim Ullah”, a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, who was 16-years old when traffickers tortured him in a camp on the Malaysia-Thailand border in 2014. “They did this every day . . . My legs are no longer conscious. They are numb, and there is not enough circulation.”

Traffickers in the camps denied their captives access to adequate food, water, and space, resulting in deaths, illness, and injury—including paralysis—particularly of those unable to pay the money demanded by the traffickers to obtain their release.

Download full report HERE.

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