Zafar Ahmad bin Abdul Ghani was on the run since the Burmese military junta seized power through a coup d’etat in late 1988.
After months of hiding to secure life from military oppressions – killings, looting, land grabbing – in the western Rakhine state of Buddhist-dominant Myanmar, Rohingya youth Zafar and others fled to Bangladesh and then to India.
Failing to make a good living, he decided to go to Malaysia that had held better prospects. Finally, he found a way – a boat journey through the Indian Ocean against a hefty pay to the agents. After two weeks of perilous journey, they were landed in Thailand coast only to be arrested and sent to the detention centre.
“When we explained to Thai police our persecutions in Burma, they released us but handed over to other boat agents,” Zafar told The Daily Star from Malaysia where he has been living since 1992.
To cross into Malaysia, he had to pay the agents worth $300, which he had collected from his relatives staying in Thailand.
“I was lucky to be able to pay. I never knew the fate of others who could not,” said Zafar.
He is one of thousands of Rohingya men and women, who have been fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China to escape persecutions in Myanmar.
While some could manage fake passports of other countries like Bangladesh to move to third countries like Saudi Arabia, a large part of them took the dangerous sea journeys.
The trend began in the 1990s after the military juntas continued to rule the country, putting democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and imposed discriminatory regulations on the Rohingya, who are estimated to be 1.1 million, mostly in Rakhine.
According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the Rohingyas were not formally recognised as Burmese national group after its independence in 1948. The 1982 Citizenship Law too denied them citizenship.
They are subject to various exploitations including forced labour, extortion, restriction on movement, denial of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations and land confiscation.
Amid military oppression, they fled to Bangladesh – first in 1978 and then in 1991-92 – in major influxes of some 500,000 Rohingyas. Presently, around 32,000 refugees stay in the UNHCR-run camps in Bangladesh, while an estimated 500,000 live outside the camps.
According to the UNHCR, some 140,000 Rohingyas live in Malaysia and 132,000 in Thailand, but unofficially the figure could be much higher.
Under the present reformist government formed in 2011, Myanmar saw the worst sectarian violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and 140,000 homeless, mostly Rohingyas in Rakhine province. Violence by the Buddhist mobs has accelerated the Rohingya peoples’ desperation, and the transnational human trafficking gangs are taking its advantage.
The UNHCR says from June 2012 to June, 2014, some 87,000 people have departed by sea from Bangladesh and Myanmar border.
On reaching Thailand by the cargo ships, each Rohingya is demanded ransom worth $1,500-$2,000 before pushing into Malaysia, it said.
“In remote jungle camps in Thailand, transnational criminal networks are beating and torturing their captives in an attempt to extract ransom payments from their families and friends,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Thailand-based rights group Fortify Rights, in an email interview to The Daily Star.
Those failing to pay ransom are sold to the fishing industry as slave labour or forced to work in the jungle camps, international media reported.
Exhumation of 26 bodies from the mass graves in such jungle camps in Thailand recently comes as yet another testimony to the horrific conditions the trafficking victims face and end up dying.
These deaths are in addition to those killed during the sea journeys where they were either starved to death or being dumped or shot by the traffickers. The UNHCR said over 200 people may have died along the route beginning at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in 2014.
Zafar said after reaching Malaysia sometime in 1992, police arrested him and other Rohingyas and put him in jail. Released after four months, he was handed over to the “agents” in Thai bordering areas of Kelantan, north-eastern state of Malaysia, only to be extorted twice.
Eventually, he reached Kuala Lumpur and got registered with the UNHCR after months of efforts, but that was of no use as Malaysia neither has refugee camps nor provides aid to the refugees.
With no passport or legal job document, life in Malaysia has always been difficult and humiliating for the desperate newcomer with police arresting him over a dozen times and putting in jails.
“I sometimes work in construction, but get low pays. I have a wife and three children, but I can’t do much for them,” said Zafar.
“I have no state, no protection of life. I feel very sad, frustrated. Often I cry and don’t sleep for whole night,” said Zafar, reflecting the plight of hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya spread across the world.
Rasheduzzaman, professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, said the reformist government of Myanmar was said to be democratic, but there were no signs that its policy on the Rohingya would see a change in the near future.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the international community, however, can surely play a proactive role in the process, he said.
When such fruitless efforts have been there for years, Zafar Ahmad posed an open question: “We were born Muslims. Was it our fault? Why should we suffer everywhere? Is it called humanity?”