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.
“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.