KLANG, Malaysia — Earning their title as the world's most persecuted minority, Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya Muslims are risking troublesome seas and lands to flee oppression at their homeland for a meager dream of a better life.
"I could not stay (in Myanmar) anymore," Abdul Rahim Abdul Hashim, 18, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday, May 21.
“We could not go to school, I could not get any job.”
Abdul Rahim embarked on the dangerous journey south along the Myanmar, Thai and Malaysian coasts with two dozen others aboard a small boat in Bangladesh.
He crossed the border into neighboring Bangladesh last year and secured passage on a rickety boat for the perilous 3,200-kilometre (2,000-mile) sea voyage to Malaysia.
Intercepted by Thai authorities, they were detained in a jungle camp for several weeks and fed just once a day.
At last, Abdul Rahim and several others bribed their way out to go by bus and on foot to the Malaysian border.
"I was very scared," he recalled.
Rohingya Muslims are believed to be descended from Arab and other Muslim traders who traveled and settled in the area more than 1,000 years ago.
They live in the mountainous northern Rakhine state, one of the poorest and most isolated in Myanmar.
Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
Every year, thousands of minority Muslim Rohingyas flee Myanmar in wooden boats, embarking on a hazardous journey to Thailand or Malaysia in search of a better life.
While some find work as illegal laborers, others are arrested, detained and "repatriated" to a military-ruled country that washed its hands of them decades ago.
Rohingyas say they are deprived of free movement, education and employment in their homeland.
They are not recognized as an ethnic minority by Myanmar and say they suffer human rights abuses at the hands of government officials.
Like thousands of Rohingya Muslims, Abdul Rahim could not erase the disturbing images of his life under Myanmar authorities.
He still recalls nights in which he was snatched from bed to help build roads, cut down trees and perform other hard labor at a Myanmar military camp.
"In Myanmar we can never sleep. Now we can sleep here," he said.
In 2010 elections, Myanmar invited Rohingya to vote, stand as candidates and form political parties.
But this corresponding offer of possible citizenship has never materialized, crushing the hopes of many.
"While the new government has engaged in a series of reforms toward democratization, there has been no real progress for the Rohingya, no change at the policy level and very little on the ground," said Chris Lewa, director of Bangkok-based The Arakan Project, an advocacy group monitoring the Rohingya.
"Forced labor, marriage restrictions, restrictions on movement and arbitrary arrests continue."
Without an immediate change in Myanmar discriminatory practices, there will be no future for the prosecuted Muslim minority.
"There is no change at the moment. The Rohingya still see no future," said Lewa.
As most Rohingya Muslims preferred Muslims-majority Malaysia as their final destination, others harbored dim hopes of resettlement through the UN refugee agency to a third country such as the United States or Australia.
Others decided to embark on the even longer and more dangerous boat journey to Australia via Indonesia.
"They have no hope," said a Rohingya exile who only gave his name as Yahya.“If they die (at sea), never mind. (They may) find a better life.”
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