Thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar in the recent years
Many more are forced to live in appalling conditions in displacement camps
Many hope the election of Aung San Suu Kyi's party will help ease their plight
As the sun creeps closer towards its midday peak, the inhabitants of Dar Paing camp move out to the dusty streets to escape the oppressive heat of their single room dormitories.
This is home to thousands of Rohingya Muslims, a stateless people not recognized nor wanted by Myanmar’s government.
Located near Sittwe, in the country’s western Rakhine state, the camp is alive with sounds – children recite verses at a makeshift school, while fruit sellers entice customers to their sparse but colorful stalls. But this buzz masks the harsh reality for many people here.
As Zoya prepares lunch for her family in their cramped living space, the loss of her son Mohammed is never far from her thoughts. “I begged Mohammed not to leave,” she says, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Your father is sick and I am old, you must stay with us and protect the family,” she remembers telling him. But despite her protestations and appeals, the 17-year old escaped the camp and fled to Malaysia by boat.
It’s a well-trodden path. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar in the recent years, many falling into the hands of ruthless human traffickers who exploit their victims for money. Those that cannot comply are beaten, sold into bonded labor, or simply killed.
Some 16 days after Mohammed left, Zoya received a call from his traffickers demanding she pay $1,500 to secure his freedom. Confined to a camp where there is mass unemployment, Zoya was forced to sell her family’s food ration cards for the next two years – including those of her three younger children.
“I have six family members and we are not getting any rations at the moment,” she says.
Zoya sent the money to a trafficker in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, but got only silence in return. “Eventually my son contacted me and said ‘please do not give them the money, I have already been sold onto someone else,’” she says.
That was the last time she heard from Mohammed.
As Zoya recalls that final call, her husband wipes a tear from his face. It has been two years since their son left, but the pain has not faded. “If he was alive he would have contacted us, so we are convinced that he was killed,’ she says with resignation.
Life of hardship
Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims live a life of hardship and oppression that a recent report found to be tantamount to genocide. More than 140,000 people live in overcrowded Internally Displaced People camps, with little access to food or healthcare. Thousands of others reside in segregated villages across the state where the most basic of freedoms are denied.
Myanmar's invisible minority
Despite their suffering, other Rohingya like Kyaw Aung, refuse to leave their homes and what they consider to be their homeland.
“Even if our future is dark, I will not leave … I have my ID card, I am a citizen of this country,” he says.
His identity card was issued in 1959 but the government of President Thein Sein, a former general who has led Myanmar since 2010, revoked ID cards for minority groups such as the Rohingya last year.
Kyaw Aung sits on his balcony in a crisp white shirt and a perfectly folded longyi – a traditional Myanmar dress worn like a sarong. The 73-year old recounts his years of government service as a lawyer in the Sittwe courts with clarity and detail.
He has rented the land from a Rohingya villager, whose ancestral home falls within the barbed wire boundary that contains camps including Dar Paing and Thet Kay Pyin. Built on stilts, his house will tower above the shacks below when the monsoon rains flood the mud-ridden camps.
“It is impossible to live there. I have three daughters and a wife who suffers from a heart defect,” he says.
Their living room is spacious but Kyaw Aung has few possessions – just a bamboo mat, some photos and a leather folder that he desperately protects as if it were the alibi of an innocent man. He carefully presents the contents in a line on the bare floor; his birth certificate, university degree, and employment records.
“The government might say that we are not citizens but I have enough documents to prove that I am absolutely a citizen,” he says with the persuasive force of someone who argued for a living.
The Rohingya’s current hardship began in 2012 when a wave of religious violence forced tens of thousands of people into restricted camps and villages. Since then, the government has done little to prevent the persecution of this Muslim minority by upholding the Burmese nationality law, which denies them citizenship and voting rights.
Kyaw Aung dedicated his life to enforcing the rule of law and his final hope is that Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy icon whose party won the last year’s general election, will do the same. “We expect her to apply law and order in this country,’ he says.
But she has been virtually silent on the Rohingya issue, refusing to discuss the topic during the election campaign. While some Rohingya hope the Nobel Laureate will end the religious discrimination once her government enters parliament, others see no hope.
Mohammed Ali is a community leader in Thet Kay Pyin camp. His family live on the main thoroughfare in a larger dwelling consisting of two rooms. Each morning Mohammed passes his neighbors, who are pumping water from the well, to tend a small but immaculate garden.
He carefully pulls back the leaves to reveal young fruit. Despite the putrid smell wafting from the latrines next door, the garden provides Mohammed with a moment of respite from life in the camps.
“The situation is not getting better, it’s getting worse. If the government wanted to stop this misery and give us back our freedom it would be easy, but it is a religious conflict so they can not do so,” he says.
Mohammed has just bought a fishing boat with four other families and plans to sail thousands of kilometers to reach Malaysian soil. Standing on a river bank in the low afternoon sun, he points to a decaying ship, careful that his shadow doesn’t draw the attention of fisherman selling their catch below him.
“We cannot talk about it openly because if other families find out, then they will all want to come and it will cause us a lot of trouble,’ he says. He also asked to hide his identity.
In May last year, the world watched with horror as thousands of Rohingya were stranded in the Andaman sea, abandoned by their traffickers in relentless heat and refused entry to every country in the region. Since then, international pressure has forced the Thai government to eradicate the trafficking rings operating from their country.
Few now recruit from the Rohingya camps, so fleeing Myanmar has become a privilege of the well off who can afford to buy their own boat. But that does not mean Mohammed’s journey will be easy.
“There are still human traffickers that know the route we will be taking so they will be waiting at sea and if they see our boat they will surround us and take the people,” he says.
In this enduring conflict, there are few favorable options for the Rohingya Muslims. Staring at his weathered boat, Mohammed prays he can evade the human traffickers and that his family will survive the journey.