PADANG BESAR, Thailand -- At a joint news conference in Bangkok on June 24, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also the country's foreign minister, hailed the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the two neighbors.
It was Suu Kyi's first visit to Thailand since her party had taken power in March. To show the strength of their friendly ties, Thai authorities were careful to avoid raising a touchy issue with Myanmar's de facto leader. During her two-day stay in Thailand, one word became quasi-taboo in the country: "Rohingya." The Muslim minority in Myanmar uses this name to identify themselves. The government does not recognize them as citizens. Rohingya people have been persecuted for decades, occasionally becoming the targets of violent attacks.
In the morning of June 23 -- the date of Suu Kyi's arrival in Bangkok -- a press conference was organized by Rohingya rights advocates at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. But the event was soon interrupted by police officers, who ordered them not to answer questions from reporters. One man who represents the Rohingya group in Thailand only managed to utter one sentence repeatedly: "Please call us Rohingya."
The following morning, The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand, carried a satirical cartoon that portrayed Suu Kyi and Prayuth dancing together while stomping on a Rohingya man and a foreign correspondent. The title of the cartoon was, "Thai-Myanmar Anti-Rohingya Tango."
Relearning to walk
A few days later, at a hospital in Padang Besar -- a border town between northern Malaysia and southern Thailand, some 800km south of Bangkok -- a young Rohingya man was trying hard to walk, slowly, with the support of a metal device. Only a piece of pink cloth was wrapped around his hips, leaving his chest bare. He appeared to have difficulty grabbing the device, due to paralysis in his fingers.
Nikkei Asian Review met the man, named Zama Ahmad, for the first time in May 2015 at the hospital. At that time, he was so skinny he appeared almost skeletal, and he remained confined to his bed. When we talked to him, he showed little or no response. He looked fragile, and his vacant eyes stared at the ceiling.
His life has changed considerably in the past year. When Zama walks along a hospital hallway, it's easy to see a ray of hope in his eyes. He can walk to the bathroom by himself. Three years have passed since his hospitalization. He now weights 45kg, having earlier weighed as little as 20kg.
"I feel a little better now, but I am still unable to pick up food and move it to my own mouth and brush my own teeth, because I have trouble moving my fingers correctly," Zama said. He is always encouraged by a mobile phone that helps him stay connected to his mother and wife, who live in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine. His mother also tells him to keep practicing his walking.
Zama began to tell his story, which we couldn't hear last year. After deadly clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority erupted in Rakhine in 2012, the homes of more than 100,000 Rohingya people were burned or destroyed. After the riots, Zama opted to flee to Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, and boarded a smuggler's boat. His home was also destroyed in a fire, and he felt he had no future in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar. "The boat was packed with about 1,000 migrants," he said.
He has only a blurry memory of what happened after he reached Thailand. About three years ago, he was left half-dead beside the road in Padang Besar. Fortunately, he was brought to a hospital for treatment.
Human trafficking camp
The plight of wave after wave of Rohingya people fleeing aboard smuggling boats drew significant international attention in late April 2015, when authorities in Padang Besar discovered a suspected human trafficking camp in a tropical jungle near the town, in which hundreds of Rohingya had presumably been held captive. Near the camp, a mass grave with 30 bodies, believed to be Rohingya victims of human trafficking, was unearthed.
When we visited the campsite last year, shabby huts sat on steep slopes, and food packaging and plastic bottles were scattered around the grounds. Strange odors wafted through the air, suggesting that a great many people lived in the camp.
Thai authorities acknowledged the existence of a transnational human trafficking network in the region. The network forced Rohingya people to get on boats or persuaded them to board ships, and they were transported to Ranong, a port town in southern Thailand on the Andaman Sea coast. Refugees were then bundled into trucks and delivered to a jungle camp, where they were held in captivity. Among them, only those whose families or relatives paid a ransom, usually 40,000 baht ($1,155) to 100,000 baht per person, were allowed to cross the border into Malaysia. Those unable to pay ransoms were further victimized by the brutal conditions in the camp, where they were given only small amounts of water and food and many of them died from starvation. Some were killed by torture and daily beatings by smugglers.
After Thai authorities launched a sweeping crackdown on human trafficking in May 2015, traffickers abandoned migrant-filled vessels at sea, leaving as many as 5,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis stranded off the coasts of neighboring nations like Indonesia or Malaysia with limited food and water. As a result, Southeast Asia now finds itself in the midst of a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
When we met Zama for the first time last year, he was lying next to another Rohingya man in his mid-20s, close to his own age. Sorot Alam, who called himself Ahmeen at that time, was hospitalized after being found injured in a jungle migrant camp three weeks before we first met. He was nothing but skin and bone.
In Rakhine state, where his family of 12 lived, an acquaintance of his father asked him to board a smuggler's boat to seek refuge. He eventually accepted the proposal and was sent to a jungle camp packed with nearly 500 Rohingya refugees, in which he spent three and a half months. "Fifty people around me died, and most of them starved to death," he said, speaking on his bed as his eyes teared up. "In my dreams, my mother often died."
When we visited the hospital this year, Sorot was no longer there, and his bed had been removed. He had started a new life in the U.S.
The U.S. accepted the Rohingya man, who was granted refugee status under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' mandate after he restored his health. He left Thailand four months ago and now lives in Washington. Before leaving, he told Zama, "Take care. Please continue your walking practice." Since then, Zama has begun to show greater enthusiasm for his training, according to a hospital staff.
When we called Sorot on the phone, he said he started working at an automobile parts factory a month ago, after having taken a three-month English course upon his arrival in the U.S. He earns $1,300 a month, part of which he transfers via Bangladesh to his family in Rakhine. When I asked him, "How are you?" he answered in his newly learned English, "I am fine."
Sorot said he is happy to be there, although he was at first surprised by the cold weather in the region, which he had never experienced before. He sent a picture of himself via social media, posing in front of a red Cadillac he had happened to see on the street. He seems like a different person, having gained weight.
Waiting for resettlement
It is uncertain whether Zama will follow Sorot's example. According to Rachakorn Surabhakdi, a field associate at the UNHCR Regional Office in Thailand, a total of 191 Rohingya people resettled in the U.S. between 2013 and the end of May 2016. As of mid-July, 342 Rohingya refugees were still held in such facilities as immigration detention centers across Thailand. They are lamenting the uncertainty of their detention and the lack of information about what to expect in the future.
Refugees' access to the resettlement program is limited. An increasing number of people fleeing Syria and Afghanistan are seeking safety in Europe. The number of refugees has hit a record high globally, according to the refugee agency. But the number of resettlement countries is still only 30. Last year, only 0.66% of refugees were admitted for resettlement.
In Sadao, a small town near Padang Besar, there is an immigration detention center operated by the Immigration Bureau of the Royal Thai Police. The building is surrounded by barbed-wire fence, and all the ground-level windows are barred. The Rohingya refugees in the detention center are held and forced to live in a closed camp, isolated from the outside world.
At a cabinet meeting in March, the Thai government agreed to issue short-term work permits to victims of human trafficking, allowing them to work for up to one year in the country. The working period can be extended. But because related ministries, such as the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security and the Ministry of Labor, are still working on the arrangement, it will likely take time before it is implemented.
Since April-June 2015, the number of smuggling boats crossing the Andaman Sea has decreased dramatically. UNHCR estimates show that roughly 1,500 refugees fled the border area between Myanmar and Bangladesh in October through December of 2015, or less than 5% of the level a year earlier. The trend clearly shows that a crackdown on human trafficking networks in Thailand has had a great effect.
But there is no guarantee that refugees will refrain from embarking on a notoriously perilous journey to Thailand and Malaysia. Mohammad Saber, chairman of the Rohingya Thailand Group, who lives in Thailand, believes the Rohingya will continue to risk their lives at sea to escape persecution and the dire humanitarian situation in Myanmar.
Zama and Sorot each took a step forward into the future. However, unless the Myanmar government adequately addresses the issue of religious conflict as a root cause of societal strife, an estimated 1 million Rohingya will remain desperate and hopeless for their future.
Nikkei staff writer Anchalee Romruen contributed to this story.