BANGKOK—Southeast Asia is bracing for a new “sailing season.” It’s a benign-sounding expression for one of the region’s most perilous annual events.
As the seasons change and summer begins in the southern hemisphere, when monsoons recede and seas grow calmer, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Burma make a grim decision. They choose to sail eastward on creaky boats run by callous smuggling syndicates. Their goal: securing underground work in Thailand or Malaysia, even though both nations warn them to stay away.
Many die at sea. Those who do not are often swept into mafia-run human trafficking rings infamous for rape, extortion and burying those who can’t pay ransoms in jungle graves.
But the risk is deemed worth it among many Rohingya who, in recent years, have decided the danger is preferable to remaining in their homeland.
In Burma, the Rohingya have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, local mob massacres and a government that derides practically all 1 million Rohingya inhabitants as invaders from Bangladesh. More than 140,000 are confined to bleak government-run camps after pogroms, stoked by radical Buddhist monks, purged them from their homes.
As the West copes with a highly politicized influx of families fleeing Syria and Iraq, this lesser-known Asian crisis still simmers.