Rohingya children groomed for a life of abuse

Joseph Allchin

Nov 4, 2009 (DVB), Centuries of migration to Malaysia has turned the country into a vibrant patchwork of nationalities, but in the shadow of this mosaic one Burmese community is bearing the sickening brunt of Asia's darker side.

"The biggest group we deal with are the Rohingya…they are the most vulnerable," said Dr Ziauddin, of the Nur-a-Salam organization for street children, based in the rough gang-controlled streets of Kuala Lumpur. She sits amongst dozens of children in her Chow Kids drop-in centre, which she claims is seeing an unprecedented influx of Rohingya, and therefore demand for the services that it works hard to provide.

What is perhaps most worrying for the Rohingya community, among the many Burmese communities in Malaysia, is the vulnerability of their children. "There is a demand now for more and more children, it is very clear, the market is there for these kids to be used and violated," said Aegile Fernandez, from the anti-trafficking organization, Tenganita. "More and more men are demanding child sexual services."

Former traffickers interviewed by Tenganita said that they hunt for 13 to14 year-olds for a variety of reasons, including their malleability. It is because "children are so fearful", Fernandez says. Getting hold of them whilst still young allows them to be 'groomed' in preparation for the harrowing life that will follow; they are effectively a long-term investment: "After a few years they are groomed to become pimps" to service an increasing demand for sex from "tourists as well as Malaysians".

Yet while sexual exploitation of children is one of the most distressing forms of abuse, it is by no means the only social problem that exists for Rohingya children in exile.

"The kids are just left on their own, every single kind of urban poverty issue, it is there," says Ziauddin. She recounts the story of one young Rohingya they helped who had had been a drug user and a drug runner and since the age of eight. Now aged 13, they are assisting him in a rehabilitation centre to overcome addictions to a cocktail of drugs, including heroin, shabu (a methamphetamine preparation) and glue.

Tenganita has also documented a number of cases where children have been smuggled for organs. Fernandez says however that "we don't know [how many], but we suspect that in a way it is connected to missing children, because we have a huge number of missing children".

"Unfortunately there hasn't been a will by government agencies or NGOs to look at the investigations as to where these children are and what has happened to them, but we hear stories of them being found in Thailand, Indonesia, or taken to Singapore, and then they disappear."

She continues that it is only now that Malaysia had been designated as a 'Tier 3' country in the US government's annual Trafficking in Persons report that wider reasons for trafficking were being investigated, but added that "we need to look deeper into it". But why is it that Rohingya children are bearing the brunt of a wider increase in child abuse?

Fernandez describes the situation as a "cycle of violence" which "starts in Burma". It is clear from conversations with front line workers that something has gone seriously wrong for the Rohingya. Many of the children at Ziauddin's centre have been abandoned by their parents, and act which leads to "abandonment grief, anger issues and other behavioural difficulties" in children, Ziauddin says. It's a decision that, if repeated, spells disaster for the future of the community.

In Burma the oppression that the Rohingya community faces as frequent victims of political, racial and religious persecution may well be the root cause of many of these issues. The Burmese junta has long practiced racial prejudice as a government policy, and nowhere has this been manifested more clearly than when the Burmese consul general to Hong Kong light-heartedly confided to a journalist during an interview that the Rohingya were "ugly as ogres".

This sinister attitude is reflected in official policy, which denies the Rohingya classification as one of Burma's ethnic minorities. As such they are treated as aliens, a sub-race, not citizens of the land that their ancestors have inhabited for at least eight centuries, and the majority are unable to get passports, rendering them stateless. It is a practice reminiscent of Burma's first military dictator, Ne Win, who drove out Burmese of Indian origin in the 1960's. The junta thus defines citizenship through a lack of skin pigmentation.

And the thousands that flee Burma each year are a scattered, impoverished people, who resettle in accordance with the status they held in their country of origin. It would thus appear incontrovertible that the racial prejudice and poverty endured by them in Burma has become another reality in Malaysia, where desperation pulls communities apart.

"I think you would be hard pressed to find ten families living together," said Ziauddin. "They seem to be extremely poor; they can't find jobs and keep their families together."

The "cycle of violence" is perhaps now playing itself out, with generations of prejudice and oppression expressed as communities disintegrate through abuse and desperation. Is this the eventual end for an ethnic minority that doesn't fit the junta's racial vision of their 'Mranma'?

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