KUALA LUMPUR and PHANG NGA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like many young women in the Rohingya community in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Sakinah Kahtu had a sheltered life. The youngest in a family of eight, she stayed indoors most days, and her family was her only source of news.
Then in early April, the 18-year-old’s parents told her she was to leave her family in Maungdaw, one of the three Rohingya-majority districts bordering Bangladesh in Rakhine, and travel with traffickers by sea to Malaysia with other stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Since bloody sectarian violence last year upended Rakhine’s Rohingya communities – leaving scores dead, thousands of homes burnt and some 140,000 displaced – their life has become ever more precarious.
Kahtu’s parents saw the departure of their only daughter as the only way she would be safe.
“They said situation in Maungdaw is unstable. They feared I would be raped by Nasaka,” Kahtu said, referring to the much-feared Border Administration Force who once controlled every aspect of Rohingya life and are blamed for human right abuses including forced labour, extortion and arbitrary arrests. The Myanmar government abolished the group last week.
“They paid 300,000 kyats (more than $300) to the brokers and sent me with away an acquaintance,” she said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation at the office Rohingya Society in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
These costly, dangerous journeys through the Bay of Bengal last weeks. Stocked with meagre supplies of food and water, the trips were once undertaken primarily by Rohingya men who left in search of work.
Since June 2012, however, record numbers of women are taking to the seas with their children and babies in a sign of heightened desperation amid deepening ethnic hatred and violence, and the enforcement of apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority.
Thomson Reuters Foundation met with Rohingya women who made it to Malaysia – as well as others who were stuck, detained in Thailand – to document their journey from Myanmar.
“What the flight of women and children signifies is the collapse of hope in the Rohingya community… and the fear that the violence by ethnic Rakhines against the Rohingya could restart easily on the basis of the slightest perceived provocation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia for Human Rights Watch.
Kahtu’s journey lasted 15 days, during which the 500 or so passengers — including 60 women and children — were fed only once a day. Many fell ill.
In an unexpected hitch along the way, traffickers held her for three days in Thailand. A Rohingya man Kahtu had never met took pity on her and paid the asking price - $2,520 - to get her to Malaysia. Kahtu’s fellow villagers told the 22-year-old man she could be his bride.
She arrived in Kuala Lumpur on April 25, and the couple was married three days later.
Due to the clandestine nature of the boat trips, it’s difficult to know exactly how many Rohingya have left Myanmar.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said an estimated 27,000 people, including some Bangladeshis, have left from the Bay of Bengal between June 2012 and May 2013, while Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, puts the numbers at nearly 35,000. Either figure makes the exodus the largest in years. During the same time period a year earlier, June 2011 to May 2012, only 9,000 people were thought to have left.
As many as half the boat passengers now leaving Rakhine’s capital Sittwe are women and children, while nearly one in 10 leaving northern districts such as Maungdaw, Arakan Project said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the growing trend is “worrying”.
“Women and younger children are likely to be less physically resilient to the extreme conditions during the long and risky boat journeys, with frequent accidents/capsizing and shortages of food and water en route. They are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse along the way and even after reaching shore,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
According to the Immigration Ministry, there are an estimated 1.33 million Rohingya in Myanmar. Many have lived there for generations, but the government denies them citizenship as well as free movement, education and employment. In the predominantly Buddhist country, the Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants who deserve neither rights nor sympathy. The U.N. has called them "virtually friendless".
Last June, after the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims, a Buddhist mob dragged 10 Muslims from a bus and beat them to death, apparently in retribution. Six days later, violence erupted in Maungdaw before spreading to Sittwe. Rival mobs of Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, both armed with machetes and bamboo spears, torched one another's houses.
There was further bloodshed in October, and a Reuters investigation found that attacks against Muslims were carried out by politically-linked Rakhine nationalists, incited by Buddhist monks, and abetted at times by local security forces.
NO TURNING BACK
Living conditions for the Rohingya have worsened. Many, including former residents of Sittwe town, are in squalid displacement camps in rural areas with little access to basic services. Those not displaced are facing further restrictions.
And so parents send single daughters like Kahtu and 19-year-old Sarjida away on boats, while others like 31-year-old Zawbader Hattu and 22-year-old Noru leave with their families, all hoping to reach Malaysia where thousands of fellow Rohingya have found refuge.
Sarjida, also from a village in Maungdaw district, left for the same reasons as Kahtu. Sarjida’s journey cost more than $2,000, paid for by a fellow villager, a friend who left years earlier. They married when she reached Malaysia.
Others befell harder fates. Zawbader Hattu and Noru have been in a shelter in southern Thailand since being detained by the authorities in February. Having lost their homes during the riots and then enduring months in displacement camps, both left on the same fishing boat in January with more than 100 others.
“It took us 12 days to get from Sittwe to Thai border,” Hattu said from the shelter where she and Noru are being held in Phang Nga province. “We could not sleep because it was so cramped.”
Noru, heavily pregnant when she boarded the boat, gave birth on day six of the journey.
"There was no medicine, no food and no water. I had to drink saltwater when I was thirsty during labour,” she recalled.
Five days after reaching Thailand, they were arrested. Hattu’s husband, who was on a different boat, made it to Malaysia, but Noru’s is in a detention centre with other Rohingya men. Some 2,000 Rohingya are being held in about two dozen centres in Thailand.
The men are stuck in overcrowded places with little freedom, while women and children are in shelters where they remain vulnerable to traffickers. Many have escaped or tried to escape, and at least one woman reported being raped by a trafficker.
Many women at the shelter are anxious of being sent back to Myanmar. Others hope Thai authorities will allow their families to be reunited.
"I was afraid to go on the boat journey, but we saw what happened in June,” Hattu said. “We might die from the journey, but we didn't want to die in Myanmar."