Pushed from Burma, Stateless Rohingya Flee by Boat

In the wake of bloody sectarian violence last year, more and more Rohingyas are betting what little they still have on a dangerous journey at sea

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Jason Motlagh / The Washington Post / Getty Images

An ethnic Rohingya man climbs aboard his boat in Sittwe, Burma on Jan. 31, 2013

A large chunk of Abdul Rahman’s home is gone, and so is his oldest son, Shakur. The ethnic Rohingya farmer tore down nearly half his home for scrap needed to secure his son’s passage on a boat bound for Malaysia. In the wake of bloody sectarian violence last year that left hundreds dead and forced tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya into camps outside the coastal city of Sittwe, Rahman, 52, insists his people are being “strangled” by a Burmese government that does not want them. While foreign donors have supplied basic food rations, checkpoints manned by armed guards prevent the displaced from returning to the paddies and markets their livelihoods depend on. “Even animals can move more freely,” says Rahman.

These days, more and more Rohingya are betting what little they still have on a dangerous journey at sea. Community leaders and boatmen involved in the exodus say the volume of passengers is unprecedented because of enduring tensions and a total lack of mobility inside Burma, also known as Myanmar, where the Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and neglect. The growing sense of despair is borne out by the roughly 1,800 refugees who washed up in Thailand in January. And they keep arriving, on overloaded boats without navigational equipment, despite a voyage that can take up to two weeks. If they’re lucky: of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh last year, the U.N. says at least 485 were known to have drowned.

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“Now there is just one choice left for us: go and live with other Muslims,” says Sayed Alam, 20, an unemployed shop worker, as he prepared to leave Sittwe, the state capital, with two friends. “There is so much fear in this place.”

The plight of Burma’s Rohingya minority continues to cast a pall on its transition to democracy. Called one of the most-persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship though many families have lived in the country for generations. Last June, their woes intensified after reports that an Arakanese Buddhist woman was raped by three Rohingya men set off a wave of communal clashes. Mobs of Buddhists and Muslims rampaged through villages with swords and rods, burning homes and beheading victims. In a damning report, Human Rights Watch alleged that Burmese security forces committed killings, rape and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect them and Arakanese Buddhists during the riots.

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Eight months on, pockets of Rohingya that remain in rural Arakan state are in serious trouble. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced in early February that its field teams continued to face hostile threats from Arakanese leaders and state forces that forced them to cut back medical care. Moreover, the aid agency warned of a brewing “humanitarian emergency” in the heavily restricted camps around Sittwe. Burmese officials claim the camps are necessary to shield the Rohingya population from further harm, but MSF says that acute malnutrition, skin infections and other ailments caused by poor sanitation are on the rise, especially among those uprooted by a second spasm of violence in October and now live on the margins of established camps.

“My children are sick, they are hungry,” says Halima, 30, a pregnant mother of five who arrived in late October and lives in a straw hut on a dusty plain. She cooked a pot of rice over a dung fire — the family’s only meal of the day. Her children wandered half-naked, their bellies swollen with hunger, in view of a food depot where residents of a formal camp collected rations of rice, beans and palm oil. Because Halima and her family were not directly affected by the violence, they are not registered as “displaced” people, and therefore ineligible for foreign aid. This explains the absence of her husband. “He is away looking for more food,” she says. “We must have something for tomorrow.”

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While aid officials and activists debate how many are without assistance, the urgent problems posed by the Rohingya’s near-total lack of mobility are clear. Denied access to farmlands and town markets, able-bodied men are unable to earn any money as day laborers, leaving them fully dependent on aid, explains Carlos Veloso, country director for the U.N. World Food Program in Burma. This is problematic, he points out, since the international donors currently needed to feed legions of displaced (and must renew funding due to expire in April) don’t want to create permanent settlements.

Faced with stagnant conditions inside the camps and insecurity everywhere else, greater numbers are taking their chances on the open sea. Mohdi Kasim, a prominent Rohingya community leader living in one of the camps, described how his neighbor, a veteran police officer, showed up at his door earlier in the morning in tears asking for money to help cover his boat fare. Both of his sons had already left. According to Idriss, 35, a Rohingya boat builder with gold rings on his fingers, two to three vessels are leaving the Sittwe area every night, often packed with over 100 passengers. “We tell the people it’s not safe, but they insist on going,” he says. “They are suffering so much here.” (Both Idriss and Halima decline to disclose their full names for fear of persecution.)

(MORE: Treatment of Muslim Rohingya Minority Shows Burma Has a Long Way to Go)

But the risks do not end off the water. In January, more than 800 Rohingya were rescued in raids against human-trafficking networks across southern Thailand, according to Thai media reports. An army colonel and another high-ranking officer are under investigation for suspected involvement, as well as a local politician. Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya activist based in Thailand, took part in a Jan. 10 raid on a remote compound in Songkhla province where about 300 refugees were being held. Brokers were demanding more than $2,000 to smuggle them into Malaysia. Several Rohingya were among the men arrested.

The Thai government has agreed to let the refugees stay for six months before they are repatriated or sent to third countries. (Malaysia, for its part, has been receptive to those who reach its shores.) In the meantime, new arrivals are being held in detainment centers, unable to make phone calls home to those they left behind. Kalam is hopeful that the U.N. refugee agency and international pressure will move the Thais to grant Rohingya amnesty. A return to Burma, he adds, is out of the question. “So many people told me, ‘If you’re going to send me back to [Burma], you should kill me now instead.’”

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Abdul Rahman, the farmer, counts his son as “one of the lucky ones.” Less than two weeks after his departure, he received a phone call from Malaysia that he’d made the crossing successfully and was looking for work. Another of his sons will soon follow, he says, meaning more money had to be raised. Standing in front of what’s left of his home, he reflected on what else he could sell.

— Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

4 comments
AphayGyi
AphayGyi

There is no Rohingya in Burmese ethnic group. They illegally came into Burma from Bangaladesh and settle down in Burma.

thandarpyu9
thandarpyu9 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Media supports even evils if they see benefits from evils. Why just said easily that three bingalis raped an Arakan Buddist woman. It was a Very Big crime. Imagine she were your mother, sister, daughter. The writer is not a good man. He does not know about the basic human law.

KhineZin
KhineZin like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here in the West, we are lied to constantly about what's happening in Myanmar. We are told of the deportation of the Rohingya, but we're not told how they got there in the first place. And we're not told about how they murder Buddhist monks and attack innocent people constantly.


The truth is, there is no such thing as a Rohingya, any more than there's such a thing as a Palestinian. The Palestinians are Arabs who came to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th century to benefit from the economic boom the Jews brought and then attacked the Jews and were driven out. They didn't start calling themselves Palestinians until well into the 20th century. And the Rohingya are just Bangalee Muslims who have been coming to Burma for centuries but only really started flooding in after Bangladesh's war of independence.

They've been waging a terror campaign against Burma for decades demanding an independent state in the territories they have invaded.

3dot14159265358
3dot14159265358

Send the carriers to take these people out of Burma. If Obama refuses to do it we still have Rambo to the rescue.