Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2013.
Abu Kalam, 26, an ethnic Rohingya, looks out toward the Bay of Bengal as he prepares to leave Burma by boat. In the wake of deadly violence last year, enduring tensions and a lack of work are driving greater numbers to flee. Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2013.
Halima, 30, a pregnant mother of five, cooks rice at a camp in Sittwe, Burma. The U.N. and other groups are providing food for more than 115,000 displaced Rohingyas, but thousands more displaced must fend for themselves. Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2013.
Displaced Rohingyas receive U.N. food rations at a distribution point on the edge of camp in Sittwe. Thousands of Rohingyas who are not eligible for the foreign assistance must rely on handouts. Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2013.
Image by Jason Motlagh. Burma, 2013.

SITTWE, Burma — Abu Kassim clutched his stomach and heaved forward, replaying the moment his uncle was shot dead last summer, one of scores of people who were killed as sectarian violence engulfed western Burma.

Abu Kassim, 26, and his ethnic Rohingya family have since survived on handouts in a makeshift camp on the fringe of this coastal city, unable to return home or look for work beyond military checkpoints. “There are no opportunities here for us, no hope,” he said. “We are prisoners.”

Now, he’s convinced there is only one way out: to cross the Bay of Bengal by boat to join fellow Muslims in Malaysia.

Abu Kassim is far from alone. Eight months after unrest between Arakanese Buddhists and Burma’s Rohingya minority displaced tens of thousands from their homes, tension and despair are driving greater numbers of stateless Rohingyas to tempt fate on the open sea.

While precise figures are hard to come by, Rohingya community leaders and business managers involved in the exodus say the number of boat migrants has climbed to several thousand each month, with two to three wooden vessels leaving area shores each night, at times loaded to almost twice their capacity.

Tensions have simmered for decades between the Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with both groups claiming to have been marginalized by Burma’s government, which is dominated by another ethnic group, the Burman. Rohingya Muslims are officially considered illegal “immigrants” from Bangladesh and denied the rights of citizenship, though many of their families have lived in the country for generations.

To critics who have cast doubts on Burma’s efforts to help a minority it refuses to recognize, even at a time while the country takes first steps toward democracy, the gathering wave of departures is no surprise.

“The government wants to make us miserable, to push us out,” said San Shwe Maung, 30, an unemployed teacher. Many Rohingya-owned businesses, he points out, have been appropriated by the state. “We are like the second Jews.”

Burmese officials counter that they are protecting Rohingyas from further harm following widespread sectarian violence in June, when it was reported that an Arakanese woman had been raped and killed by three Rohingya men. Mobs from both sides overran villages with swords, iron rods and torches, targeting women and children. A second round of clashes in October drove more into camps.

Just one Muslim district remains in the once-diverse capital, Sittwe, its entry points choked by barbed wire barricades. On a recent morning, a line of monks in maroon robes walked past the charred remains of empty homes and a neighborhood mosque reduced to a concrete slab.

The sprawling camps west of the city now hold more than 100,000 people. Armed guards stand at checkpoints to ensure that those who have left do not return. Most families uprooted by the violence receive a monthly supply of rice, palm oil and chickpeas from the United Nations, but the funding that supports that effort will run out by April and must be renewed before the summer rains arrive.

Rohingya community leaders say it’s natural that more and more people are taking matters into their own hands. Only a limited window remains for sea travel ahead of the monsoon storms. Travelers often head out without navigational equipment for a crossing that could span hundreds of miles and take up to two weeks.

“This appears to be the intended outcome of a dire situation in which Rohingyas have been consolidated, denied free movement and a means of earning a living,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

Would-be passengers are charged more than $100 for a space on rickety, 40-foot-long vessels. Charity is shown to those who can scarcely afford the trip, the operators add, but some payment is required to cover the hefty bribes owed each week to border guards at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

The journey south can last as long as two weeks. About one in 10 boats, carrying between 80 to 150 people, either veer off course or disappear. “Of course we are very concerned about the risks, but the people are insisting, they want to go,” says Shamshir, 42, one of the boat builders.

The United Nations, which calls the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, says that of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled Burma and Bangladesh last year, at least 485 were known to have drowned.

For refugees, the peril does not end at sea. In January, more than 800 Rohingyas were rescued in raids on trafficking networks in southern Thailand, according to Thai media reports. An army colonel and another high-ranking officer are under investigation for suspected involvement, along with a local politician. Several Rohingya traffickers have also been arrested.

With two days left before he was scheduled to leave Sittwe, Abu Kassim, the young man who witnessed his uncle’s murder by paramilitary thugs, assembled his provisions: biscuits, chocolate bars, bottled water and oral rehydration salts.

He said he was sober about the risks ahead. “Of course we are afraid of the traffickers, but the suffering may still be less than this life, so we must try,” he said. “God willing, we will reach Malaysia.”

Project

After decades of isolation, Burma is taking fresh steps toward democracy. The West has strengthened diplomatic ties and trade, but familiar fault lines still threaten prospects for lasting stability.

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