Now, he is convinced that there is only one way out: to cross the Bay of Bengal by boat to join fellow Muslims in Malaysia.
Abu Kassim is far from alone. Eight months after unrest between Burma’s Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya minority displaced tens of thousands from their homes, tension and despair are driving greater numbers of stateless Rohingyas to tempt fate on the open sea.
Although precise figures are difficult to come by, Rohingya community leaders and business managers involved in the exodus say the number of boat migrants has climbed to several thousand each month, with two to three wooden vessels leaving area shores each night, at times loaded to almost twice their capacity.
Tensions have simmered for decades between the Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with both groups claiming to have been marginalized by the government, which is dominated by another ethnic group, the Burman. Rohingya Muslims are officially considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied the rights of citizenship, though many of their families have lived in Burma for generations.
To critics who have cast doubts on Burma’s efforts to help a minority it refuses to recognize, even at a time when the country takes its first steps toward democracy, the gathering wave of departures is no surprise.
“The government wants to make us miserable, to push us out,” said San Shwe Maung, 30, an unemployed teacher. Many Rohingya-owned businesses, he said, have been appropriated by the state. “We are like the second Jews.”
Burmese officials counter that they are protecting Rohingyas from further harm after widespread sectarian violence in June, when it was reported that an Arakanese Buddhist woman had been raped and killed by three Rohingya men. Mobs from both sides overran villages with swords, iron rods and torches, targeting women and children. A second round of clashes in October drove more into camps.
Just one Muslim district remains in the once-diverse capital, Sittwe, its entry points choked by barbed-wire barricades. On a recent morning, a line of monks in maroon robes walked past the charred remains of empty homes and a neighborhood mosque reduced to a concrete slab.
The sprawling camps west of the city hold more than 100,000 people. Armed guards stand at checkpoints to ensure that those who have left do not return. Most families uprooted by the violence receive a monthly supply of rice, palm oil and chickpeas from the United Nations, but the funding that supports that effort will run out by April and must be renewed before the summer rains arrive.