BANGKOK, Thailand -- Armed kidnappers in Myanmar seized young girls
and other ethnic Rohingyas, brutalizing and imprisoning them on
overloaded boats to sell them to traffickers and corrupt officials in
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, survivors said according to New
York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The forced victims were mingled among thousands of other stateless
Rohingya Muslims who voluntarily paid to escape racist oppression in
Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma, HRW said in a May 27
report titled: "Accounts from Rohingya Boat People."

A dozen local men "dragged me to the boat, they had sticks and
threatened to beat me," said Yasmine, a 13-year-old girl from
southwest Myanmar, according to HRW.

"I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they
couldn't do anything," she said.

"The [boat] doors were always locked. The smugglers put the food and
water through a small hole, we never saw them. We were only allowed to
go to the toilet once a day," Yasmine said.

Six men, "Buddhists from Bangladesh, they had knives and guns. They
forced me to get on a boat," said another Rohingya girl, Arefa, age

"I was there for two months...I was sick, throwing up, I stayed on
that boat just like dead people," Arefa said.

Some Rohingyas paid for passage, believing tales of decent jobs in
Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, or here in Buddhist-majority

Others simply wanted to join relatives who illegally traveled earlier.

The Rohingyas joined impoverished ethnic Bengali Muslims from
neighboring Bangladesh -- mostly economic migrants -- who usually also
paid traffickers for passage.

Some vessels were recently abandoned to drift in the Andaman Sea and
Bay of Bengal, because traffickers feared possible crackdowns by
governments in the region, often resulting in vicious fights among
passengers for meager rations.

A U.S. Pacific Command Navy P-8A Poseidon plane has started flying
surveillance missions from Subang, Malaysia, looking for ships
illegally packed with Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, according to the
U.S. government's Voice of America (VOA).

"The U.S. on May 24 began conducting maritime surveillance flights off
the west coast of Malaysia," the American Embassy in Bangkok told VOA.

"The flights are consistent with our offer to assist governments in
the region to improve their understanding of the situation in the
Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal."

U.S. officials "consult with governments in the region, regarding
their needs and the best ways the U.S. can support them providing
humanitarian assistance for vulnerable migrants in the region," the
embassy said.

At least 3,600 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis made it to shore in
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia during May, often rescued by local

Other recent arrivals suffered in sinister-looking cages of wood and
barbed wire in jungle camps on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian
border, under the control of unidentified traffickers.

During the first week of May, Thai authorities found 36 corpses in
makeshift graves in Songkhla province's hilly jungle next to
Thailand's side of the frontier, presumably linked to illegal

On May 25, Malaysian security forces discovered 139 shallow pits with
more corpses at now-abandoned camps near Wang Kelian and Padang Besar
in Perlis state, in a rugged, isolated zone on the Malaysian side of
the border.

The dead on both sides of the border are presumably Rohingyas and
Bangladeshis who perished from torture, hunger or disease while
traffickers demanded thousands of dollars in extra cash as ransom to
continue overland.

"Baby shoes were found inside camps abandoned by smugglers, who left
in a hurry," said Malaysia's Channel News Asia reporter Melissa Goh,
indicating a pair of white scuffed tiny sandals found near the 139

"Also found in one of [the] mass graves, a 2 week old corpse, highly
decomposed," she tweeted.

Malaysian authorities wrapped freshly disinterred corpses in white
sheets and laid them on black tarpaulin in the dirt where the camps
had been hidden by dense foliage.

The "graves found on Malaysian soil [are] purportedly connected to
people smuggling," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stated.

"I suspect the camps have been operating for at least five years,"
said Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Forensic teams in Malaysia and Thailand are now examining the
decomposing bodies to determine how long they had been buried and
their identities.

"They are tainting Bangladesh's image in the international arena,"
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on May 24, describing
her country's desperate migrants as "mentally sick."

"There is sufficient work for them, still they are leaving the country
in such disastrous ways," Ms. Hasina said, according to government-run
Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha news agency.

"Along with [trafficking] brokers, punishment will have to be given to
those who are moving out of the country illegally," she said.

Myanmar's officials denied any of their citizens are fleeing, and
insist all Rohingyas came into Myanmar from Bangladesh illegally
during past decades -- a denial condemned as false by international
human rights groups.

Today, harassed by scattered storms, thousands more Rohingyas and
Bangladeshis are trapped on boats unable to land, according to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Washington has called on the region's governments to stop the
smugglers and rescue the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis so they can be
temporarily sheltered, returned home or offered permanent sanctuary


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978.