As the rains of Asia’s southwest monsoon come to an end, international aid organizations say another Rohingya exodus is on the horizon.
In the coming weeks, as the Bay of Bengal-Andaman Sea route to Southeast Asia reopens, thousands of ethnic Rohingya are expected to board boats to flee to a new country.
In a special cross border report in Thailand and Myanmar, correspondents Kannikar Petchkaew and Phyu Zin Poe look at the harsh reality driving them to make the dangerous journey.
Tudon Sha is so thin, he looks like a skeleton. Lying in a hospital bed in southern Thailand he tries to explain his ordeal, but he is so weak, he struggles to speak.
He was brought to the hospital after a month of being beaten and starved in a jungle refugee camp run by human traffickers.
Authorities found 26 graves at the camp, many ethnic Rohingya like Tudon didn’t survive the harsh treatment.
“Some of them died from starvation, they were already extremely weak during the trip and they died easily because food in the camp was rare,” explains Muhammed Nasim, a Rohingya man who has been living in exile in Thailand for the past twenty years.
As a translator who worked with authorities during the recent crackdown, Muhammad Nasim has seen how the smugglers treat the Rohingya.
“They beat them and beat them till the victim dies, and anyone who tries to escape will be shot,” he says.
Thailand is a crucial transit point for people trafficking networks. Over the past two years more than 100 thousand Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh have fled in search of a better life. An ethnic Muslim minority, the Rohingya are effectively stateless.
Siwawong Suktawi, from the transborder migration organization in Bangkok, says that according to his data, thousands of Rohingya are still unaccounted for at sea.
“There are 40,000 people lost in the Andaman Sea. I don’t know where they are,” he says, “But our security bodies are only worried that there will be new waves of Rohingya that will to come to Thailand.”
As the winds and rains of the monsoon die down on the Andaman Sea, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is expecting a new Rohingya exodus.
Abdul Kalam, a 58-year-old man from Rakhine state in Myammar and a former president of the Rohingya Association of Thailand, says the boats have already started.
“One boat already left this month,” he says, “And is going to its destination and then more and more will follow.”
Aross the border in a Rohingya refugee camp in Sittwe, children are playing in the mud around their small bamboo shacks.
Conditions are tough – for the past three years there has been no electricity, and for food so those in the camp have to rely on monthly rations of rice, peas and oil.
Twenty year old Cho Cho is among 120,000 Rohingya that live in the camp. A mother of two, this April she left her two children with their grandparents telling them she would be back soon.
But in the middle of the night she boarded a boat hoping to flee to Malaysia.
Cho Cho knew it was going to be dangerous, but she didn’t realize how hard it would be for the women.
“Those women who were on the boat were taken upstairs,” she says, “They were crying when they came back downstairs. When I asked some of them to tell me the truth they would not say anything.”
But from below, Cho Cho could hear the women shouting ‘No’ and then being beaten.
“At this time some of the men who were part of the crew also asked me to go upstairs,” recalls Cho Cho, “I shouted to them that I wouldn’t come, even if it meant I was going to die.”
Three years ago Cho Cho’s husband died making a similar journey on a fishing boat. After her own traumatic trip, Cho Cho was caught by the navy and brought back to the camp.
But says when the monsoon ends, she plans to take a boat again.
“I am desperate as I don’t have money to feed my children. There are no jobs here,” she says, “That's why, I have no choice but to leave again.”
In Myanmar, Rohingya face discrimination and persecution. When the country has a historic election next month, no Rohingya will be able to vote. Denied citizenship and access to education, many try to flee.
The camp is heavily guarded to make sure nobody leaves the 8-kilometer radius, but those who escape, flee in the middle of the night.
Chief immigration officer Khin Soe says they are working to prevent the Rohingya from leaving.
“We are doing what we can to secure gates along the coastline of Rakhine,” he says, “But sometimes, we cannot secure every place, we have very long of Rakhine coastline.”
Here in a small bamboo mosque in the refugee camp, people are praying for a better life.
“They do not want to end their lives with nothing,” says one Muslim leader in the camp, “So whatsoever the danger is to go abroad, they want to try to have better chance, even if they have to risk their lives.”
For some Rohingya, the hard journey is just about to start...
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