One Rohingya’s struggle to empower women in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain is the founder of Rohingya Women's Development Network in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Tucked away upstairs at a shopping plaza in this city’s north end is a small storefront turned classroom for dozens of Rohinyga women and children.

The sound of these women reciting English phrases, laughing and the occasional cries of kids can be heard in the stairwell.

Its founder, Sharifah Husain, 24, said she wanted to do something to help women and children in her community, who are not allowed to work or study in Malaysia.

“I noticed we didn’t have a Rohingya women’s organisation that was standing up for women – to be the voice of women,” Husain said.

Husain comes from Buthidaung village in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state. Her father fled to Malaysia when she was five-years old, fearing for his life. Husain was left behind with her mother and two younger siblings.

The village was attacked soon afterward, so Husain’s mother took them to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar – then known as Burma.

Her recollection of the traumatic moment when a local mob attacked her village is hazy. It took place almost 20 years ago.

But it mirrors the accounts of Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh, who’ve recently fled the Myanmar’s army clearance operations and local Buddhist mobs.

“My mother was arrested in Yangon and sentenced to prison for not having official [identification or travel] documents,” Husain recounted. “This left me in charge.”

Husain can’t remember how long she spent in Yangon, but she said she was separated from her siblings and sent north to Mandalay and forced into servitude.

She spoke to her father in Malaysia, over the phone, and he agreed to pay human traffickers to bring Husain and her siblings to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city. All three, including Husain, were smuggled by land, into Thailand and Malaysia.

At that time the Southeast Asia trafficking route wasn’t as defined as it is today. Human trafficking groups in Bangladesh and Thailand now make a lot of money off of poor, desperate refugees fleeing war and violence in Myanmar.

Today, the concern faced by the Malaysia government is if it recognises its refugees then that could send a signal to more to make the perilous journey, now taken by sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh to sanctuary in Malaysia, where they don’t face violent persecution.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, states there are 152,170 registered refugees in Malaysia. The majority are Rohingya, displaced from their homes in Myanmar, like Husain.

But the amount of unregistered refugees varies widely from 40,000 to 140,000, according to Asylum Access Malaysia.

“The big question is – when are the boats going to come? There’s no indication they will now, but there’s definitely a high possibility that they will. And once new groups arrive, that complicates [the] situation,” said Deepa Nambiar, Asylum Access Malaysia director.

UNHCR runs what it calls a “parallel school system” for refugees in Malaysia, allowing children to access basic, primary-level education.

Refugee groups and local faith-based organisations fund these schools, staffed by volunteers. One-hundred and twenty-eight informal refugee schools in Malaysia access funding from the UN. It provides education to 7,154 children, according to UNHCR.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Office states 16,809 Rohingya refugee children are registered with UNHCR. This means about 10,000, or more, refugee children in Malaysia are unable to access any form of education.

A dozen or so more informal refugee schools exist but rely solely on donations and are understaffed, said Asylum Access.

“To live in Malaysia, yes you can live, but you don’t have a future. You are in a box. You can’t go out of the box,” Husain said.

Husain has received no formal education in Malaysia. This is remarkable considering her drive to educate refugee women and children. Malaysians are supporting Rohingya Women’s Development Network by volunteering as teachers and support staff.

Rohinyga Women’s Development Network started officially last year. But Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children in their own homes.

“I have built up a trust. The men especially trust me. They feel safe sending their wives to our centre because they know me,” Husain said.

Word has spread and more refugee families are now attending Rohingya Women’s Development Network classes, where they receive English-language instruction, leadership training and brand new self-defence classes.

“We want to stop domestic violence. We want to stop child marriages in the community. We want to build up women’s empowerment,” Husain said. “We really need the Malaysia government to recognise us.”

Husain is trying to change the mentality in the Rohingya and wider refugee community in Malaysia, that women and girls can’t study, work, or earn an income. She receives some funding from UNHCR to run programmes but uses her own money to keep them going.

“Of course I have support from my family. My father is my hero. My husband is my hero. Both of these men have really pushed me forward,” Husain added.

The Rohingya Women’s Development Network has teamed up with Asylum Access Malaysia on a refugee theatre project. This will allow refugee women to educate the community on issues of sexual violence.

“What I think is so innovative about Sharifah and the team is that when we were discussing this project they said ‘we need to get men involved’,” Nambiar said.

Thumbs up by Sharifah Husain after class at Rohingya Women's Development Network

Thumbs up to students after class

Husain is appealing to others in the refugee community to support initiatives set up by the Malaysia government and civil society groups to help Rohingya women and children displaced in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

Malaysia is setting up a new 50-bed field hospital for refugees in Bangladesh. The European Rohingya Council (ERC) runs two camp clinics.

ERC’s Malaysia Ambassador Tengku Emma Zuriana works closely with the Rohingya Women’s Development Network helping refugee women in Malaysia and Bangladesh.

“I am trying to build an orphanage in Bangladesh to protect the children exposed to child trafficking,” Zuriana said. “We are trying to fundraise to build a proper orphanage with a school inside. They will be protected and receive education.”

To raise awareness of the plight of Rohingya women and children fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar to Bangladesh, the Rohingya Women’s Development Network is selling beaded jewelry made during class.

Despite the Malaysian government’s commitment to provide vital aid and healthcare to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some in Malaysia say they’re also desperate and in need.

To improve the situation, Malaysia has launched a pilot project giving jobs to selected refugees. This, refugees hope, will pave the pathway to citizenship in Malaysia.

“It’s no different. In Myanmar they have been suffering. When they are outside of Myanmar, they come to Malaysia and expect something better. Things are not getting better,” Husain said. “They just escape death. But they’re still suffering here because they don’t have any rights.”

Asylum Access Malaysia’s director Deepa Nambiar said Rohingya refugees in Malaysia do receive a lot of sympathy, but not enough is done to help them integrate or assimilate.

“If we can be in a place where Rohingya women are educated, aware of their options, empowered to speak out, engage with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and partners [and] the government,” Nambiar said. “We have the right environment to do it in Malaysia.”

Husain said she believes the true function of Rohingya Women’s Development Network is to educate the community on its history – where it comes from and why it has been displaced all over Southeast Asia, and the world.

“We cannot destroy our [own] identity. If we do that, it’s very easy for Myanmar to say ‘they are really Bengali,’ I’m not Bengali!” Husain exclaimed.

“The younger generation needs to know who we are so we can fight for our rights.”


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Malaysia: Rohingya must be consulted before repatriation

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Rohingya groups hold a press conference at MAPIM in Shah Alam, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Rohingya repatriation deal is being hailed as a “first step” by the Bangladesh government, but many argue the plan is premature.

Myanmar’s Rakhine state is the ancestral home for Muslim-majority Rohingya, but those living there face discrimination, violence, and segregation. Human rights group Amnesty International calls it a “system of apartheid”.

The repatriation deal does not take Rohingya refugees’ rights into consideration, said the European Rohingya Council (ERC). Its Malaysia ambassador, Tengku Emma Zuriana, has spoken out against it.

“This repatriation process should not proceed until the safety of the Rohingya [can be] ensured,” she said.

Malaysia is home to about 150,000 Rohingya. Several non-government organisations held a press conference here on Thursday to discuss the repatriation plan.

The United Nations and United States have stated the violent actions taken by Myanmar’s armed forces and “local vigilantes” amount to ethnic cleansing against its Rohingya minority.

“This must be a voluntary process, in safety and dignity, and for them to return to their homes – not into camps. And if there’s any loss of property and life, it must be compensated fairly,” Zuriana said.

Malaysian civil society groups and faith-based organisations urged the Myanmar government to end the violence, and to ensure the safety of the Rohingya living in Rakhine state before any repatriation process begins.

The Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organisation (MAPIM) said any repatriation deal must include protection and compensation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who’ve lost everything amid the heavy-handed “security clearance” operation.

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MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid speaks to reporters

“Even if the agreement has been finalised, we strongly call on the UN to ensure safe passage for the Rohingya to return back to their homes,” said MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid.

He went on to ask the international community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): “What repatriation are they planning to implement when the Rohingya’s’ lives are totally destroyed?”

Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) wanted to remind Bangladesh of past Rohingya repatriations to Myanmar.

“[An] estimated 240,000 Rohingya were repatriated by the Bangladesh government under the 1978 agreement, which had a six month time limit. After that, Bangladesh repatriated about 236,000 Rohingya until 2005 under the 1992 agreement,” noted MERHROM President Zafar Ahmad.

In 2012, Myanmar’s armed forces began to force Rohingya into refugee camps, both in Rakhine state and across the border into Bangladesh.

Recent attacks on a police outpost in Rakhine state by the armed group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) sparked the latest army crackdown. More than 600,000 Rohingya fled their homes into Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

MERHROM wants the UN Security Council to conduct an assessment of the situation in Rakhine state, to ensure military operations against Rohingya have ceased.

Myanmar Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said the Rohingya could return only if they are “real citizens”.

The UN said on Friday the time wasn’t right for a Rohingya return.

“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place,” he added.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Malaysia agree they must be consulted.

“Until the Myanmar government is serious to improve the situation, the Bangladesh government should not agree to any repatriation plan,” Zuriana said.

“The European Rohingya Council is calling [on] Myanmar authorities to grant full citizenship to the Rohingya and review the [1982] citizenship law.”

ERC called on the international community to send a clear message to Myanmar that it will not tolerate any further violence. It also said it wants to see the UN observe, support, and monitor all investigations into human rights violations.

Humanitarian agencies providing aid and medical services to the Rohingya in Rakhine state are not allowed to access secured areas, where those most affected need urgent help.

Until unhindered access is granted to aid agencies in Rakhine by the Myanmar government, refugee and civil society groups in Malaysia will continue to voice opposition to any agreement, they said.

The concern is Myanmar will force returning Rohingya into displacement camps and settlement zones protected by the same armed forces guilty of carrying out attacks them.

“They don’t have the freedom to go back home,” Zuriana said.


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Malaysia: A Rohingya safe haven?

Arifa Sultana on air at RVision

Arifa Sultana, is a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist now based in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Inside a television studio a small team of four prepare the daily news bulletin featuring horrendous stories of rape, murder, forced exile, and the lack of an international response to these crimes.

But this is no ordinary television news station. It’s fully staffed by Rohingya refugees broadcasting online, sharing news and information from Myanmar, Bangladesh and beyond. It’s essentially refugee TV, brought to you from studios in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Sitting at the news anchor desk is Arifa Sultana, a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist. Her family fled from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state to Bangladesh a mere 11 months after her birth in 1994.

Myanmar’s government has deprived the Rohingya of citizenship since 1982. But as Azeem Ibrahim points out in his book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, the campaign to exclude them as an official minority group began with Burma’s founding 1947 constitution.

Generations of Rohingya have been rendered stateless, and it seems a concerted effort to force them out of their homes and into squalid refugee camps has been undertaken by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces.

The Tatmadaw argues it is doing “security clearance” in northern Rakhine state, and has issued its own report denying any wrongdoing since these operations began following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25.

“Everybody knows that we are Rohingya but when it comes to documentation, there’s no legal proof,” Sultana told Al Jazeera. “This is the biggest challenge I’m facing now.”

Three years ago, Sultana came to Malaysia before the country temporarily sealed its borders to refugees fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015.

Sultana wanted to continue her studies, and possibly attend a college. She quickly ran into the problem all Rohingya refugees do – the lack of necessary documentation to allow her to study legally in Malaysia.

“I’m sure there are many Rohingya like me who are more talented and educated,” Sultana said. “They have a lot of capability and potential but this is a restriction for them.”

Sultana turned to journalism. She began volunteering when she was 19-years old at Rohingya Vision TV, known as RVision to its staff and audience. It broadcasts in Rohingya, English and Arabic.

Arifa Sultana live at RVision

Arifa Sultana, 23, is afraid to leave Malaysia fearing she won’t be allowed to return

Sultana has been offered many opportunities to travel outside of Malaysia for professional journalism training, but she fears that she will not be allowed to return.

“When I started working here I was very emotional hearing all these stories. But now it’s part of my daily work schedule,” she said. “Thankfully, I have some senior editors who’ve guided me along the way.”

Ziaur Rahman, 24, is the Rohingya community’s most outspoken advocate in the country. He’s discussed the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya directly with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak three times.

“In Malaysia, we are not getting any protection, were not getting any support from NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. We don’t have any rights,” Rahman said.

Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status, so they can’t officially work or attend government-run schools. But Malaysia has allowed space for a “parallel school system”, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

These informal primary schools around Malaysia are set up and run by the refugee community itself, or faith-based organisations. The UNHCR directly supports 120 of these refugee schools.

There are 150,000 Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. Some refugee children as old as 18 attend primary level classes.

The Prime Minister’s Office said there are 16,809 Rohingya children carrying UNHCR cards, essentially allowing them and family members a discount on medical services at hospitals in Malaysia.

Rohingya Society Malaysia (RSM) is the only refugee community group recognised by the UNHCR. Its President Bo Min Naing said there are nearly 40,000 Rohingya still unregistered.

Sultana and Rahman say the UNHCR card doesn’t provide any security or legality in Malaysia. Refugees often work illegally to provide for their families.

Malaysia has no intention to help refugees assimilate or study in government-run schools, fearing more will come. It’s providing vital aid to Rohingyas displaced in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but refugees argue nothing is being done to help those in Malaysia.

“The UN is doing a lot for us, but it’s not doing enough,” Sultana said. “Even after getting the card you’re liable to be harassed on the road [by authorities]. If you have no education and your children cannot receive education, what is the point of having a [UNHCR] card?”

RSM has supported 126 students since 2009 at its informal Rohingya Learning Centre. Despite its limitation of only three volunteer teachers, it hopes to one day be able to go beyond basic primary education and offer secondary-level classes.

“Our children need education,” said Bo Min Naing. “We need to have the opportunity to send our children to the government school until we are able to provide it.”

Rahman said he will speak about the necessity of improving refugee education next time he meets with Malaysia’s prime minister. Sultana said she feels responsible for Rohingyas’ lack of education and voice in the international community.

This is why she loves working as a journalist, reaching her audience online, where many Rohingya refugees have turned to learn about the fate of their loved ones.

“We are denied all human rights. We have no legal documentation. I feel that if I don’t raise [this issue], people will not come to help us solve it,” she said.


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Thailand: No Internet Freedom with new Computer Crime Act

Free Pai Dao Din KK

A member of Dao Din wears a t-shirt that reads: “Free Pai” in Khon Kaen

BANGKOK, Thailand – The sound of cicadas spread as the sun sets in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen.

Payu Boonsophon, 23, stares down at his smart phone. He hesitates before beginning to type a message on Facebook. He knows his online activity is being monitored by Thai authorities.

“We will meet outside of the courthouse,” he writes in Thai.

Seven members of Dao Din, a group of law students at Khon Kaen University, stand accused of contempt of court for staging a rally in support of “Pai Dao Din,” Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, outside of the local courthouse.

Boonpattararaksa was sentenced to prison in Khon Kaen last August. His crime was sharing a BBC Thai story online about the new king on his Facebook page.

The court found him guilty of violating both lese-majeste, or royal defamation, and the amended Computer Crime Act. He received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence.

During a visit to Khon Kaen by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Boonpattararaksa became a target of the junta for wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘No to coup d’etat.’

“You can see that he developed his role in politics. With the attention that you have from the public, is also attention from authorities. His Facebook was monitored closely,” said Anon Chawalawan, documentation officer at iLaw, a legal watchdog in Bangkok.

Royal defamation

Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code states defaming any member of the royal family could land someone up to 15 years in prison.

Following the death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the number of Thais charged with lese-majeste has risen. Since the 2014 coup the number of investigations has doubled compared to the past 12 years, states the UN.

Only four per cent of those charged with lese-majeste have been acquitted.

“There was a witch hunt. Some people made comments on Facebook regarding the death of the late king. Some were hunted down if they made a negative comment,” Chawalawan said. “They were forced to apologize to the king’s picture and taken to the police [station]. In some cases there was physical abuse.”

The junta amended the Computer Crime Act last year to take this draconian law online. Now anybody posting, sharing or liking something on social media can be charged with lese-majeste in Thailand.

Thai civil society groups say the new Computer Crime Act has led to censorship.

“[The case of Pai Dao Din] is an example of how this law has been abused to undermine opponents of the government,” said Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat now living and teaching in Kyoto, Japan.

The Thai junta has even gone so far as to revoke Chachavalpongpun’s passport because of his prolific writing and online activity denouncing military rule in Thailand.

Thais have been warned against following, sharing or liking anything from three anti-junta dissidents, including Chachavalpongpung. It has stated anybody caught doing so can be arrested and charged under the Computer Crime Act.

“This law should be cancelled because it does not follow human rights principles,” Boonsophon said, as he set his smart phone on the table in front of him.

Democracy restoration

“They try to control social media because they know it can empower Thai people. In Thailand, so many people use Facebook. For the people who call for human rights and democracy, social media is very important for us,” said Kate Jangrew, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

Kate Jangrew at Thammasat

Pro-democracy activist Kate Jangrew at Thammasat University in Bangkok

Jangrew, 24, is a founding member of Democracy Restoration Group. She has been arrested and charged three times for organizing protests against the junta. She fears being arrested for simply liking a post on Facebook that could be deemed lese-majeste. Earlier this year, the junta informed Jangrew that she was being monitored.

“In my lifetime already there have been two coups. The first was 10 years ago. The second was three years ago. The military cannot give democracy to the people. They cannot make a good life for Thai people,” she said.

Any day now the coronation of the new Thai king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, will take place at the royal palace in Bangkok.

“We can definitely see that the new King could place Thailand at a critical juncture for its politics. What this man will do as the new sovereign could impact whether elections will happen soon. Monarchy still has a veto over military,” said noted Thai political analyst, Dr. Paul Chambers, a professor at Naresuan University.

Despite countless raids and arrests of Dao Din and Democracy Restoration Group members, Boonsophon and Jangrew both say they won’t be intimidated to stop their calls for a return to democracy in Thailand.

In the meantime, both will continue to defy laws they deem unjust and call for immediate elections. A new day will dawn in Thailand once the sun rises and the cicadas go quiet.

Published @Medium

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Thailand’s Computer Crimes – CBC The World this Weekend

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai netizens are outraged as amendments to the Computer Crime Act came into effect in 2017. It’s meant to take Thailand’s draconian sedition and royal defamation laws online.

The current regime has made it a far-reaching act since its inception 10 years ago — targeting its critics online anywhere in the world. Thai civil society groups complain that the revised law has lead to censorship.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, Oct, 28, 2017.

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North Korean Defectors Help Escapees Reach China on ‘Underground Railroad’


Ji Seongho is president of Now Action & Unity for Human Rights.

SEOUL, South Korea – When she crossed the border from North Korea to China, Ann Kang understood it was only a temporary feeling of freedom, one that could be taken away in an instant.

The real difficulty, she knew, lay ahead in crossing into Laos and Thailand, where true freedom awaited.

It’s a similar story for the estimated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans now living illegally in China, and as legal citizens in South Korea.

“I had to slide down a mountain I’d climbed with four others to reach Laos from China. It was very dangerous, but I reached the Mekong River and a boat took us to Thailand,” said Kang, a 29-year-old now among the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

Escape from North Korea

Friends inside North Korea gave Lee the phone number of a Chinese man who facilitates defections to South Korea. To North Koreans, these men are known simply as brokers, arranging the safe passage to third countries, mainly to Southeast Asia or Mongolia.

According to South Korea’s constitution, any Korean can be recognized as a South Korean national and receive Republic of Korea (South Korea’s official name) citizenship.

Thailand allows the South Korean embassy to intervene to help North Korean refugees, like Kang, reach their final destination, Seoul.

“I spent ten days in a Thai jail until I was allowed to leave for the South Korean embassy. I had to wait my turn to leave. It took 40 days until I was able to leave for Seoul,” Kang said.

The process for Kang was much quicker than for most defectors reaching South Korea. Her family’s status may have spared her the long vetting process of other North Koreans. But like all new defectors to South Korea, a three-month-long integration program begins.

“North Korean and South Korean people aren’t different. The only difference is in North Korea there are no human rights. When I was younger I had no idea about freedom. Not until I left did I realize there’s really no freedom in North Korea,” Kang said.

Due to its heavily militarized demilitarized zone, or DMZ, North Koreans can’t cross directly to South Korea over the shared border. They need to go north into China, where they are usually unwelcome guests.

A New Underground Railroad

China’s government labels North Koreans as illegal migrants, not allowing them the rights and protection guaranteed to refugees under international law.

The UN refugee agency – UNHCR knows North Koreans aren’t recognized as refugees in China, and are forcibly repatriated.

There’s nothing UNHCR, or the South Korean government can do to help those it may recognize as its nationals from being sent back to North Korea. There have been cases of North Korean defectors reaching South Korean or U.S. embassies in China, but increased security and police presence has made that nearly impossible today.

“People who cross the [Yalu and Tumen] river into China face the threat of exploitation and being caught and sent back to North Korea to face torture, forced labour and a range of harsh punishments,” said Sokeel Park, country director at Liberty in North Korea.

This organization has helped resettle 700 North Koreans, mainly in South Korea and the U.S. But the need is much greater as potentially hundreds of thousands of North Koreans remain stuck in China – with an unknown number deported back to North Korea every year to an uncertain fate.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 2017 has seen a 10 per cent decrease in the amount of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea.

This is most likely due to heightened security restrictions and surveillance along North Korea’s northern border with China, the only escape route, and that those who make it into China from North Korea often spend months or years trying to acquire the funds to pay a broker to get them out.

Kang said it cost her five million South Korean Won ($4,424 USD) in total to escape China. A church pastor loaned her the money. This is an astronomical amount for most North Koreans. Those coming from poor families may be unable to ever acquire a loan for this amount – and will continue to work illegally in China for low pay.

North Korea Confidential

As humanitarian aid and Christian relief organizations continue to assist North Korean defectors, now North Koreans themselves are helping others escape China to bordering countries.

Ji Seongho is a 35-year-old North Korean defector also living in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. As a young man, he went to China three times before being caught by Chinese police and forcefully sent back to North Korea.

“Many poor North Koreans go to China to sell items. I sold my traditional charcoal paintings,” Ji said. “I first heard about South Korea in 2000, while in China. I was begging on the street and a Chinese [man] talked about life in Seoul is much better.”

Ten years ago, after arrest and what he says amounted to torture, Ji risked his life once more to leave North Korea. This time he would seek the help of others on what activists call a modern day “underground railroad,” reaching Thailand via Laos and Myanmar – an exceptionally long 9,000-kilometre route to freedom in South Korea.

“I’m helping North Korean defectors in China with my organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights. I can assist with funds needed to facilitate travel,” Ji said.

There’s no way to know the exact amount of North Koreans in China, according to Ji. But he believes it’s at least three times the amount of the 30,000 North Koreans, like himself, living in South Korea.

The Two Koreas: A human rights dichotomy

The Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights states 80 per cent of North Koreans defecting to South Korea are now women and children.

Program Manager Sohee Kim says its field workers in China identify North Koreans needing financial assistance to escape and provide support on a case-by-case basis.

“We mainly focus on rescuing women and children first. They are more vulnerable to human rights violations like sex trafficking.”

She added that since North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un has come to power, state surveillance has intensified, with the number of repatriations from China increasing.

But for Kang, she says most young women dream of life in South Korea, and that they are leaving in record numbers, even if the official statistics don’t reflect this. She wants to help other North Koreans, especially her family members, leave home to join her in Seoul.

“When I watched South Korean television programs I thought South Korean men were really handsome and that money must fall from the sky. I fantasized about living in Seoul,” Kang said. “Now that I’m here I feel lonely but that’s the price I had to pay.”

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South Korea’s Candlelight Nights: Seongju County Residents Oppose U.S. missiles

thaad sk map

Seongju County is located 300 kms south of Seoul, South Korea’s capital.

SEOUL, South Korea – A nightly candlelight vigil by South Korean farmers was met with police force when a controversial U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, arrived against their wishes.

“The government assures us that this is a temporary deployment, which means it may be disassembled, or relocated but nobody believes that,” said Yoon Geumsoon, a 58-year-old Seongju farmer. “We don’t want it to be relocated, we want it gone.”

For the last 14 months, a small group of Korean melon farmers in Seongju County have organized nightly vigils and weekly protests to oppose the South Korean government’s deployment of the controversial missile defense system.

“When [President] Moon Jae-in was a candidate for the presidency he said will reconsider the deployment of THAAD and conduct an environmental evaluation,” said Jungmin Choi at World Without War. “But he deployed the remaining missiles without this procedure.”

The tension on the Korean peninsula between North Korea and the U.S. is the reason for South Korea’s rapid completion of a defense system. According to reports, North Korea is now capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the U.S. wants to be able to monitor this and possibly shoot them down, if provoked.

The Chinese government stated that the THAAD deployment in South Korea is heightening tensions in the region.

A movement is born

The anti-THAAD vigils began months before the 2016-17 “Candlelight Revolution,” protests demanding, and ultimately achieving, the impeachment of South Korean president Park Guen-hye.

Former President Park promised to allow the U.S. military to deploy THAAD in Seongju County, 300 kms south of the capital Seoul. Earlier this year, a corruption scandal jailed Park, an aide, and the heir of South Korea’s largest company; Samsung vice president Lee Jae-yong.

“We call this Moon Jae-in government the candle light government. He was elected because of the protests to oust president Park,” said Sarang Lee, a human rights activist in Seoul who participated in the protests.

There is an ongoing blockade in Seongju County, led by women in the farming community. They are attempting to halt supplies from passing through town to the THAAD missile site, located on the grounds of a former Lotte golf course.

“Now we have a full THAAD unit deployed. But the construction to make that unit permanent isn’t finished yet, so they are continuing to fight to stop the construction,” said union organizer, Wolsan Liem.

Seongju County was a conservative support base. This means it viewed U.S. – South Korean military relations positively, and is most likely the reason it was selected by former President Park to host the THAAD missile defence system, completed by current President Moon.

The farming community is now deeply disillusioned by South Korea’s political leaders, and the need for increasing militarism on the Korean peninsula.

“At first they were worried that the radars would affect their crops,” said Liem. “Once they learned more about it they knew it would increase tensions in the region.”

 A blue butterfly effect

Filmmaker Emmanuel Park learned about the Seongju farmers’ protests against THAAD through media coverage. He felt compelled to document how this small farming community became a catalyst for change in South Korea.

“I was interested in what their motives were. Since I live nearby, I visited a couple of times. There was this energy I hadn’t seen in other protests before. They were really saddened and felt betrayed by the government,” he said.

Park’s film is called Blue Butterfly Effect. It’s now touring South Korea, where free community screenings are set up at other protest sites and events.

“They didn’t have any experience in activism. It was an eye opening experience for them,” Park said. “They were indifferent to these issues. But suddenly became engaged and informed and were actively doing something.”

Now a bus of Seongju County supporters, called Blue Butterfly, tours the country attempting to inform South Koreans about the need to deescalate tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Seongju farmers, like Yoon, believe nightly candlelight vigils is the only way to show South Koreans that their protest is carrying on the tradition of a country now known around the world for peaceful political protest.

Yoon and others from her generation hope to see the conditions met for reunification between the two Koreas: North and South. Not the further disintegration of relations for the sake of increasing American and South Korean militarism.

“We will never stop fighting. We know it’s time consuming work, but for the sake of peace in South Korea and for world peace we will continue our struggle,” said Yoon.

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