* The Rohingya Pipeline

Traffickers’ jungle prison camps on the Thai-Malaysian border ‘operating for years’, say Rohingya migrants in Malaysia.

Susan Cunningham, Kuala Lumpur
Mizzima Weekly, August 20, 2015 

[This article appeared in Myanmar’s Mizzima Weekly print magazine in 2015 but not online. I decided to post it here more than a year later because the Rohingya homeland in northern Rakhine State is once again attracting international media coverage. Even Malaysian PM Najib  wants to take advantage of the crisis this round. The spotlight won’t last long. There was another brief international moment in spring 2015 when the overloaded boats were drifting around the Andaman Sea and various governments vowed at a high-profile multinational meeting in Bangkok that the recent arrivals in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand would be resettled in third countries within a year.  In the weeks after, though, I was unable to interest any international media outlets in why thousands of stateless Rohingya risk their lives to reach Malaysia each year or how they live illegally once they get there. Fortunately, Mizzima was interested.

As for that one-year deadline? Who knows or cares? When it was coming up, I emailed the NGOs and individuals that had appeared last year to have some knowledge and interaction with Rohingya  (not to be confused with the much greater number that tweet relentlessly, often spreading baseless rumors and phony images, but don’t do anything else). Only one person replied. She said she heard that the Rohingya that had arrived in northern Sumatra in 2015 had made their way across the Straits of Malacca to Malaysia, but she had no details. That movement is interesting because the Acehnese were very welcoming to their fellow Muslims last year; my guess is that the Rohingya wanted to join relatives in Malaysia. The trial in Thailand of more than 100 people involved in trafficking Rohingya ultimately convicted 62 persons, including an army general, two provincial politicians and many local businessmen. Malaysia has displayed much less interest in prosecuting alleged traffickers.  Twelve police officers were arrested but charges were dropped without a trial in March 2017. I know that, while not surprised by that outcome, Rohingya in Malaysia must be especially distressed that no Malaysian immigration officials were charged. How difficult would it be to trace the holders of those mysterious Maybank and CIMB accounts where ransom payments were deposited? It’s difficult to take the Malaysian government’s expressions of concern for Rohingya welfare too seriously.

It will be interesting to see if Justin Trudeau’s grandiose statements mean that Canada will begin to accept Rohingya for resettlement. At the time I wrote this article, the US was the only country resettling Rohingya from Malaysia; that had been the situation for many years. The conditions and work prospects for Rohingya in Bangladesh were far worse than in Malaysia even before  tens of thousands of Rohingya arrived there in in the final months of 2016, after fleeing attacks by the Myanmar army in their homeland of northern Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh may therefore be the first priority for resettlement in a third country.]

While traffickers’ jungle prisons along the Thai-Malaysian border were first widely exposed by Reuter’s reports published almost two years ago, they have been well known to Rohingya in Myanmar and Malaysia for more than a decade.

Sultan Ahmed bin Ahmed Hussein, the new president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia (RSM), arrived in Malaysia in 2012 by way of a border jungle prison. The 2001 Sittwe University graduate had been working in Rakhine State for GRET, a French non-governmental organization involved in agricultural development. After the 2012 communal riots, the French staff left the state and he was interrogated by the police. “They wanted money,” he recalled earlier this month. “Some of my friends were arrested. Some were shot and killed.”  After he left his home in Buthidaung to stay with friends in Maungdaw, he heard that back home “thirty police had descended on my house, so I knew I had to leave.”  His wife and four children are still in Myanmar (Burma).

Beginning with a Thai fishing boat, the cost and route of passage to Butterworth via Thailand were common knowledge in Maungdaw by then: 6,000 Malaysia ringgit (US$2,000) or the equivalent up front, followed by another 6,000 ringgit to be paid into traffickers’ bank accounts once the passengers had arrived somewhere in the vicinity of the Malaysian-Thai border. Continue reading

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* Women Journalists In Myanmar Are Numerous But Still Stalled by Stereotypes

By Susan Cunningham
Mizzima

12 November 2016

Women are strongly represented in Myanmar newsrooms but few reach decision-making levels, reflecting the many obstacles they face in advancing in their professions. In Yangon, professional opportunities are growing and society is receptive to women in many media occupations. For those working in the states and regions, however, options are severely limited by traditional attitudes about women’s roles and fears about personal safety.

The findings were included in a report presented last week in Yangon at the 5th Media Development Conference by Agneta Soderberg-Jacobson, a senior gender advisor with Sweden’s Fojo Media Institute.

The report, “Gender in the Myanmar Media Landscape”, is the product of research in the past year with 298 respondents working in Myanmar print, online and broadcast media. Fojo conducted the research by surveys and focus groups with support from International Media Support (IMS). The respondents, more than half of them women, were journalists, senior editors, media managers, and representatives of media organizations. They worked in Yangon, Kayin and Shan states, and the Sagaing region.

Mothers not wanted

Of the 2,000 accredited journalists in Myanmar today, 60% are women. However, even in Yangon, the majority hold low-ranking and mid-level positions in the media industry with men dominating decision making.  Continue reading

* Myanmar: 45 Million Mobile Phones and the $19 3G Smartphone

True smartphone on sale in Yangon - Credit: Susan Cunningham

Only in Myanmar: the $19 3G smartphone

The phone in the above photo is a shiny new $19.44 smartphone. When I saw this for sale in small corner shop on Anawrahta and Pansodan streets in Yangon a few weeks ago, the 23,000 kyat (at 1,183 kyat/US$1) price included one SIM card too. As you can see, it’s 3G capable and has slots for two SIM cards.

Later I saw the same Thai brand, complete with Thai packaging, among the familiar and strange brands of phones being sold on sidewalk tables, like the ones in the photo below. Since bargaining comes with the territory and these phones aren’t being sold in a shop with overhead costs, do they cost even less than $19? Such a low price for a new phone must also affect the pricing of secondhand smartphones, regardless of brand.

Myanmar (Burma) has three mobile carriers: the government’s MPT and the two private carriers: Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor. Two years ago this month, Ooredoo introduced its service with 1,500 kyat SIM cards; MPT had dropped its Sim price from the equivalent of $300 to 1,500 kyat some months before that, but the private company turned on the advertising and promotion firehose and Telenor followed suit a few months later. A decade ago, SIM cards were in the $1,500 range. Nowadays, some Myanmar people have two phones, each with a different carrier, because coverage varies in different parts of the country. And since a SIM card costs less than $1.50, why not?

A few days before I came across the True phone, I had interviewed Jes Pedersen of the local tech community organization, Phandeeyar, for Digital News Asia. The astounding growth in the past two years of both mobile users and smartphone users was an inevitable topic. He said that today there are 45 million active SIM subscriptions, up from only 3 million or 4 million two years ago: “And sixty to eighty percent of those are smartphones.”

How is that possible when the average wage is $3 a day? Bear in mind that the recently released statistics from the 2014 census … MORE

* Do Myanmar’s Rohingya Really Need Citizenship Now?

By Susan Cunningham
Forbes.com

The more I learn about the plight of Rohingya, the stateless people of northwestern Myanmar, the more I think that foreign diplomats and op-ed writers may be wrong to be pushing the citizenship plank now. Perhaps there are more urgent priorities.

I have been reading and thinking about this since I talked recently with Lilianne Fan, a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank. She had just returned from her second visit to the four camps in Aceh State, Indonesia, which are sheltering nearly 2,000 Myanmar Rohingya and Bangladeshis that were rescued in late May from three boats abandoned by traffickers.

On one boat the 600-plus survivors had been adrift for more than two months and another 100 people had been killed in fighting among the passengers. She is a co-founder of the Geutanyue Foundation, an Aceh NGO that is among the many large and small organizations providing aid to the boat people. She has been visiting Myanmar, including Rakhine State, since the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008 … MORE

* 48 Heroes of Philanthropy – 2014

By John Koppisch
Forbes Asia

For the eighth straight year we spotlight notable philanthropists in the Asia-Pacific region, especially those who made news in the past year by launching new and innovative projects. The 48-member honor roll ranges from billionaires with expansive visions of how best to help society to less well-known business people whose generosity is also leaving a huge mark.

Our goal is not to rank the biggest givers–the figures would be impossible to collect. Instead we aim to call attention to people and causes. We try to identify a new group of altruists each year, though several people here are returning to the list because of an important donation or project announced since a year ago. MORE

I contributed to this annual list of Asian givers.

* 48 Heroes Of Philanthropy – 2013

By John Koppisch
Forbes Asia

This is our seventh annual project highlighting the generous and often innovative efforts of the Asia-Pacific region’s most notable givers. We feature biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who’s working to improve cancer care in India. And, below, we spotlight the 2013 crop of 48 leading philanthropists in the region. MORE

I contributed to this annual issue of Forbes Asia.