PHANG NGA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Record numbers of stateless Rohingya Muslims are fleeing Myanmar following two bouts of sectarian violence last year that left scores dead and some 140,000 displaced, most of them Muslims.
Estimates on the number of people leaving on boats from the Bay of Bengal between June 2012 and May 2013 range from 27,000 to nearly 35,000 – the biggest exodus in years.
Some passengers were from Bangladesh but most were Rohingya, who have lived in Myanmar for generations but are denied citizenship.
Zawbader Hattu, 31, was one of them. Detained in a government-run shelter in southern Thailand with about 60 other women and children since February, she told Thomson Reuters Foundation why she left Myanmar.
“The main reason we left Myanmar is because we couldn’t get peace of mind.
“We’ve lived in Sittwe all our lives and we’ve been discriminated against. We have many graduates in my family and none of them could find decent jobs. We considered the government like our mother and father and expected it to help us, but it didn’t.
“On the afternoon of the 10th June last year, our village was torched. We tried to run away on small boats. The riot police shot at one of them, putting a hole in it. It sank. Eight of our relatives drowned. I saw that with my own eyes.
“We hid in a village in Pauktaw for a month and three days. Then we moved to Dapaing in Sittwe. Life was difficult and on January 13, 16 of us – myself, my four kids, sisters and brothers and in-laws – left Myanmar at midnight. My husband took a boat that left days later.
“It was a fishing boat we bought ourselves. There were 110 of us altogether including three pregnant women.
“I was afraid to go on the boat journey but I saw what happened in June. We might die from the journey but we didn’t want to die in Myanmar.
“On the sixth day, Noru, one of the pregnant women, gave birth. I helped with the delivery and felt we were in this situation because of the bad government.
“I don’t even hold a grudge against the Rakhines. If the government was good we wouldn’t be on that boat.
“Many people were seasick and we didn’t shower for the whole trip. If we wanted to go to the bathroom, the men helped by covering the woman with a cloth from all sides so nobody could see.
“After 12 days, around the end of January, we reached Ranong (a province in Thailand bordering southern Myanmar).
“We wanted to go to Malaysia but the Thai Navy turned up while we were still on the boat. They gave us food, pointed in the directions of Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand and told us to go where we wanted, but we had very little petrol left. So we came back to Thailand after spending two nights in the middle of the water.
“We were all crying and praying, thinking we were going to die if we couldn’t reach (Thailand). When we got close to land, I saw these massive rocks. Our boat then hit one of the rocks and broke up. The men rescued the children and women. Luckily nobody died.
“We then started walking. I remember walking on steep mountain slopes. It was very hard. After two nights of walking we reached Kuraburi. After staying there for 5 days, the Thai authorities found us and arrested us.
“We were questioned at the police station. They separated men and women and we were brought to the shelter in vans. It was February.
“I made contact with my husband a couple of weeks ago. He made it to Malaysia.
“What is going to happen to us? We hear we’d be sent back to Myanmar.
“I don’t want to betray the people at the shelter or the Thai government. But it’s better to poison us then send us back to Myanmar.”