For five years, Abdul Rahim Abdul Hashim was repeatedly press-ganged into forced labor at a Myanmar military camp, until the ethnic Rohingya teenager could take no more.
Abdul Rahim crossed the border into neighboring Bangladesh late last year and secured passage on a rickety boat for the perilous 3,200km sea voyage to Malaysia.
“I could not stay [in Myanmar] anymore. We could not go to school, I could not get any job,” 18-year-old Abdul Rahim said of the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that alleges particularly acute repression under Myanmar’s government.
The newly civilian government’s moves to relax decades of military rule have been hailed worldwide and provided hope of a new era for majority Burmese and ethnic minorities who have long claimed oppression.
However, refugees and activists say initial optimism is fading among many Rohingya — whom the UN calls one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — as repressive practices have continued and an exodus abroad shows no sign of abating.
“I don’t want to go back. There will be no change,” Abdul Rahim said in the Rohingya language through a translator.
Myanmar has an estimated 750,000 Rohingya, according to the UN, mainly in the western coastal state of Rakhine bordering Bangladesh. Another one million or more are believed to already live in exile in other countries.
A Muslim minority in mainly Buddhist Myanmar who speak a Bengali dialect, Rohingyas claim decades of persecution by a government that they say views them with suspicion.
Activists say forced labor is common and Rohingyas face discriminatory practices including travel restrictions, limits on family size and a refusal to issue them passports that leaves them effectively stateless.
“There is no change at the moment. The Rohingya still see no future,” said Chris Lewa, director of Bangkok-based The Arakan Project, an advocacy group monitoring the Rohingya.
An estimated 7,000 Rohingya, some from exile in Bangladesh, but also directly from Myanmar, risked the voyage to Malaysia since October last year, she said.
Many still flee to Bangladesh, but Malaysia has steadily become a magnet due to its more developed economy and because authorities have closed one eye to illegal migration in recent years due to a need for cheap labor.
Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrants, most seeking economic opportunities, but the UN refugee agency said there also are approximately 97,000 legitimate refugees fleeing persecution or other hardship, mostly from Myanmar and including 23,000 Rohingya.
“The new destination country is Malaysia. This year it could be more than ever coming here,” Lewa said.
Once in Malaysia, Rohingya remain vulnerable to harassment and have limited access to services such as health care.
Lewa said Myanmar invited Rohingya to vote, stand as candidates and form political parties in 2010 elections, but adds that a corresponding offer of possible citizenship 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,” Lewa said.
“Forced labor, marriage restrictions, restrictions on movement and arbitrary arrests continue,” she added.
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.