SITTWE, MYANMAR —
It is “sailing season” in Myanmar, a time when thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims have typically taken to the seas in pursuit of better lives abroad.
But this year is different. Government crackdowns on human traffickers and a historic election have many people cautiously optimistic that the situation for the Rohingya may finally improve.
In recent years, thousands of ostracized Rohingya Muslims have fled from beaches at Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's Rakhine state, on dangerous trips abroad. Some have fallen prey to traffickers.
Despite the risks, many have chosen to flee rather than endure life in Myanmar, in restrictive camps, with little education, substandard medical care and mass unemployment. Many are despondent.
“I am planning to leave by boat because we are not able to suffer anymore," said refugee Muhammed Kasim. "We suffer the most here. For example, Hitler killed Jews. But not like this. This is killing people step by step, gradually committing genocide.”
By this time last year, an estimated 25,000 Rohingya had fled. This year, only about 1,000 have taken to the seas. That’s partly because of the crackdown on smugglers, which has left those who want to flee on their own.
“There are no smugglers now, so I’m going to buy a boat," said refugee Abdul Malik. "It is better to sink into the water than to live here with no freedom of movement or rights.”
Situation 'is very bad'
Noor Muhammed is also planning his voyage to Malaysia. All of his family’s clothes and possessions must fit into a single rice sack.
“Living in this camp, the situation is very bad," he said. "We are living in one 90-square-foot room with eight family members — my wife, my parents and also my children. So it is not enough. It’s like our life is an animal’s life. … I’m afraid for the futures of my children. … At least in another country we’ll get basic human rights. I will be able to work there and support my family.”
Although Noor yearns to escape the camp, he is postponing the trip for now after the sweeping victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party in the recent elections.
Many Rohingya hope Suu Kyi's party will work to improve life in the camps, even though the Nobel laureate has been virtually silent on the plight of the Rohingya. For now, thousands like Noor are left in limbo, while they hope for signs of change.