KUALA LUMPUR—When Hussein Juhar, a Rohingya Muslim from Burma’s western Arakan (Rakhine) State, saw the crew of the boat that would smuggle him to Malaysia, he knew he was in trouble. The six men, all armed, were ethnic Arakanese—the very people he was fleeing from.
The 30-year-old decided to leave in mid-October after security forces raided his home during sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas that left around 100 dead and 100,000 displaced.
“The police and border security forces came house-to-house arresting young men and raping women,” alleged Hussein Juhar, a resident of the predominantly Muslim township of Maungdaw. “They broke into my house like robbers and beat my younger brother. I escaped out the back and was on the run for almost three months. I realized I couldn’t return home, and so I decided to try to get to Malaysia by boat.”
Hussein Juhar, who left behind his wife and four children, paid a smuggler the equivalent of US $2,000 for a place on a boat, but instead of the promised seat and two meals a day, he was packed into the hold along with over 300 other Rohingya to share a space so small there was only room to sit or lie down.
“After we had been at sea for a day, one man became seasick. He begged to go up on deck, but the crew refused,” he said. “The man fought back and so they grabbed him, tied his hands and then shot him. They threw his body into the sea.”
According to Hussein Juhar, on the second day the crew pulled another man from the hold and threw him overboard just to terrify the Rohingya below.
“By the third day, we were all desperate for water,” he said. “Three men forced their way onto the deck, but the crew stabbed one of them and slit his throat. All three were thrown into the sea.”
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are not recognized as citizens by the Burmese government according to the widely-condemned 1982 citizenship law enacted by xenophobic former dictator Gen Ne Win, have been taking to the sea for years to escape discrimination, forced labor and land confiscations enacted by the Burmese authorities.
Some pay smugglers to take them to Muslim-majority Malaysia, which they reach overland after sailing to Thailand. The number of Rohingya making the dangerous journey has increased in recent weeks, as hundreds seek to flee the sectarian violence, which flared up again in late October, displacing a further 30,000 people, almost all Muslims.
The start of the “boat season,” when calmer seas are meant to make travel less risky, is likely to encourage yet more Rohingya to attempt this escape route, yet the journey remains as treacherous as ever.
In the past two weeks, at least two boats carrying Rohingya to Malaysia have sunk off the coast of Bangladesh, claiming around 150 lives. Last Sunday, 112 Rohingya landed in a leaking boat near the Thai tourist resort of Phuket. Passengers onboard reported that a further six vessels had left Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, at the same time.
Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project campaign group which has been documenting the Rohingya for over 10 years, said, “Sectarian violence in Arakan has uprooted the Rohingya, not just physically but also mentally. Unwanted in Burma and Bangladesh, they have nowhere else to go, no other option than risking their lives at sea in search of a place to survive.”
On his recent visit to Burma, newly reelected US President Barack Obama called for national reconciliation in Arakan State. “There’s no excuse for violence against innocent people,” he told an audience at Rangoon University. “The Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” he added, a criticism perhaps of the perceived ambivalence by both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi regarding the crisis.
A Rohingya activist in Malaysia suspects the Burmese authorities are quite happy for the Muslim exodus to continue. “They make money by taking bribes from the smugglers, and at the same time they get rid of the Rohingya,” he said. “It’s win-win for them.”
Government collusion in the flight of the Rohingya appears to extend to the Thai authorities. Until 2009, Thailand allegedly dealt with boatloads of Rohingya asylum-seekers by towing them back out to sea, removing their engines and leaving them to fend for themselves.
When these tactics were exposed by local journalists, Thailand instead adopted a “help-on” policy of taking refugees to their final destination. While some argue that this is better than pushing them back out to sea, others accuse the Thai government of being complicit in people smuggling and even human trafficking.
“I know the Thai police are well-connected with an infamous trafficker,” said the Rohingya activist in Malaysia. “The police and traffickers work together. They are the same.”
Najumul Haque claims he was one of those “helped on” by the Thai authorities in late September. A Rohingya from Maungdaw, he paid a smuggler to get him to Malaysia after his two brothers were arrested by the Burmese authorities in June.
After seven days at sea, Najumul Haque was desperate to reach land, but as the boat neared shore in Thailand, his heart sank. The 27-year-old saw seven smaller boats occupied by armed men in military uniform approach their vessel. But rather than arrest those onboard, they were taken ashore where they spent a night in the jungle.
“The following morning we were collected by a police truck and more men in uniform,” he said. “Our truck was enclosed in tarpaulin, but I could see through gaps in it, and every time we passed a police checkpoint, they saluted the truck. They dropped us off near the border with Malaysia.”
Both Hussein Juhar and Najumul Haque eventually reached Malaysia, but life for the Rohingya in the capital Kuala Lumpur is not easy. “They are not recognized by the Malaysian government, which hasn’t signed the UN Convention on Refugees, and so they cannot get a formal job or even send their children to school,” said Dr. Abdul Hamid, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia. “But on the other hand they cannot be deported, because there is nowhere to deport them to.”
And so the Rohingya who risk all to escape Burma, find that they are not even welcome in Muslim-majority Malaysia,. “At least I got here safely, thank God,” said Hussein Juhar. “But I’m worried for the future, and my family back in Burma. How can I support them? How will they survive? I think about them every second of every day, but what can I do?”