Buddhist-Muslim couple flee intimidation in Myanmar for a new life

BANGKOK - He was a Rohingya Muslim whose family operate a fleet of boats in Myanmar's troubled Rakhine state. She was a Buddhist shopkeeper living in a village next to his.

In a region riven by ethnic and religious tension, their union was not just rare, but downright dangerous. Faced with persistent intimidation, they fled their homeland and went on a long and treacherous journey that eventually brought them to Thailand early last year (2015).

Mr Abdul Islam was 19 years old when he met 28-year-old Ms Asimah in 2008. She had to travel twice a week to nearby Buthidaung town to restock the groceries in her shop.

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He was a Rohingya Muslim whose family ran a fleet of boats in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state. She was a Buddhist shopkeeper living in a village next to his.
In a region riven by ethnic and religious tension, their union was not just rare but downright dangerous. They fled their homeland, to begin a long and treacherous journey that eventually brought them to Thailand early this year

The quiet, square-jawed young man waived the 1,000 kyat (S$1) boat fare each time, because "we are neighbours".

One day - two years after they first met - Ms Asimah offered to buy him coffee. Her instincts told her they were safer meeting in town rather than near their villages. But word got round to their families and neighbours anyway.

Mr Abdul's family cut off his allowance of 300,000 kyat a month. Ms Asimah's neighbours were even more incensed. "They said, if we ever met again, they would take him to the police and beat him up," she told The Straits Times.

That was in 2010, before communal tensions in Rakhine state flared into outright violence that displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, whom the Myanmar government rejects as illegal "Bengali" migrants. It was also before President Thein Sein signed into law restrictions on inter-faith marriages widely seen as targeting Muslims.


But the couple feared for their lives nonetheless and headed westwards, crossing the border into Bangladesh where they got married in a local mosque. In Cox's Bazar, they rented a tin-roofed, earth-floored shack. It was where their son Shahid was born one year later.

Mr Abdul, who tried selling vegetables at the local market, struggled to make ends meet during his four years in Cox's Bazar, like many of his fellow Rohingya. "I earned only 200 taka (S$3.50) every day," he said. "It was not enough for food".

Desperate, he contacted his parents, who by then had softened their stance. They offered to pay for his trip to Thailand or Malaysia early last year on one of the many boats operated by human smugglers for several months every year.

He hatched a plan: He would travel by sea to Thailand, while his wife - being Buddhist and able to travel freely through Myanmar - would return to Myanmar with their son and try to sneak into Thailand across a river border

Meanwhile, the smuggler Mr Abdul contacted painted a pleasant picture of his prospective sea journey. "He said we would go to Thailand on ship with 10 levels, and there would be three persons to every cabin."

The price? 60,000 baht (S$2,350).

When Mr Abdul eventually arrived on the "ship" in the Bay of Bengal, he was shocked. There were nearly 600 people crammed into the three-tier boat. There was just enough space for each passenger to sit on his haunches, with knees up to his chest.

The boat captain warned them not to move and fired his gun near the ear of anybody who tried. Many passengers defecated where they sat, into any receptacle they could find. One strong young man was felled by diarrhoea and thrown overboard when he died.

Sometime in March - after 40 days at sea - the smugglers unloaded their migrants onto an island near the Thai-Malaysian border, before moving them in small batches to a mountainous camp in Padang Besar.

It was in one of these notorious border camps that Thai security forces would later uncover mass graves that triggered a regional migration crisis.

Like many others before him, Mr Abdul was flogged at the camp several times before his family in Myanmar paid the full amount for his journey and he was freed. He tried contacting an uncle who was known to be living in Bangkok but was unsuccessful.

By a twist of fate, he bumped into a Rohingya friend near the Thai-Malaysian border where he was freed. This friend offered him a roof and a job in Bangkok.

Wary of straying too far from home in Thailand

Two months later in May, Ms Asimah took a relatively easier journey with their son - spending a total of eight days on bus journeys that took them past Sittwe, Yangon and the border town of Myawaddy. There, they crossed a parched river and slipped unnoticed into the Thai border town of Mae Sot. From Mae Sot, it was just a two-day road journey down to Bangkok where they reunited with Mr Abdul.

Ms Asimah and her son embrace while in their home in Bangkok. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Today, the family share a townhouse with two other families on the outskirts of Bangkok. Mr Abdul, now 26, spends his day hauling ice at a local market for 400 baht (S$15.60) a day. He goes home immediately after work to avoid drawing the attention of the immigration police.

Shahid, now four, stays mostly indoors in the ground floor space the family occupies. The white-tiled room contains nothing more than a mattress, electric fan, clothes rack, and cooking utensils piled neatly in one corner.

There are small luxuries: Ms Asimah retains a slab of stone which she uses to grind a log of thanaka into a cosmetic paste, typical of Myanmar women. Shahid grasps a bright red toy car in his palm.

"This home is better than the one in Bangladesh," said Ms Asimah, who is now 35. But she worries about her son's future. "He has no documents. He can't go to school."

The inside of the home of Mr Abdul Islam, Ms Asimah and their son on the outskirts of Bangkok. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

With the Thai authorities now taking a tougher stance against undocumented migrants, the couple are wary even of straying too far from their home to seek refugee status at the United Nations office in Bangkok.

The triumph of Myanmar's longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the military-backed incumbent party in the November general election has given them some hope.

"We would like to go back to the country," Mr Abdul said. "But not now. And not to our hometown. Maybe Yangon."

*All names have been changed to protect the interviewees.

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