HUDDLED in a small boat with 80 others, Amina (not her real name) survived on some biscuits and little water for 20 days in rough waters to get to Southern Thailand from the coast of Rakhine state, Myanmar.
“It was hard. Some people got sick and some died. We had to throw the dead into the sea,” she recalls.
After they landed in Thailand, their journey continued on foot through the thick jungle.
“We walked so many days before we got to the Malaysian border. We were so scared that we would be caught by the Thai army and be shot or captured by smugglers and be locked up in their camps.”
When asked why she wanted to leave Myanmar when the country was reforming, Amina said: “The changes are only for those in Yangon and Naypyidaw. Not for us.”
More than 60,000 Rohingya reportedly have fled Myanmar since the sectarian clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012, which left over 140,000 displaced and some 200 dead.
This does not count the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled the country decades earlier to escape religious persecution and other abuses, mainly by Myanmar’s former military government.
And with the Rohingya excluded from the country’s first Census in 30 years, many more are expected to flee as further tensions grow.
“The inter-communal conflicts, in particular in the Rakhine state, are the biggest concerns we have,” concedes US State Department Senior Advisor for Burma Judith Cefkin, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently.
“If the situation isn’t dealt with, it could undermine the country’s reform progress.”
It has been nearly four years of reform in Myanmar, but life is still tough for its ethnic minorities. Fundamentally, the Government need to address the underlying causes of the ethnic conflicts and look for durable solutions.
The US government have been actively engaging their Myanmar counterpart to promote reform in the police and military force through capacity-building activities.
“One of the issues that will be important to the country is the role of the military.
“The military is an important and powerful institution there. They have stepped back from running the country to have a civilian government, but there are many reforms that they still need to make to be a part of democratic Myanmar.”
Upping the pressure on the military to disengage from Myanmar’s political and economic activities, US President Barack Obama recently extended limited sanctions on the country for at least another year.
These sanctions prohibit US businesses and individuals from doing business with military and any others associated with repression of the democracy movement since the mid-1990s.
The sanctions also aim at spurring the country to address the ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas.
Rakhine state, after all, is only one of the troubled ethnic states of the country with some 135 recognised ethnicities (Rohingya Muslims are not recognised).
The military government’s atrocities in the ethnic states - destruction of villages, abduction of villagers for forced labour, rape - will not be so easily forgiven or forgotten by the ethnic communities both in Myanmar and outside.
This is true among the Myanmar refugee community in Malaysia (UNHCR Malaysia recorded a total of 133, 830 Myanmar refugees as of April 30, 2014), which includes some 51,810 Chins, 36,290 Rohingyas, 5,400 Mon and 5,150 Kachins.
As one Chin refugee who only wants to be known as Patrick says, he still wants to be resettled in the US despite the Myanmar Government’s efforts towards peace in the Chin state.
Cefkin agrees that until the ethnic conflicts are resolved, it will not be safe for the refugees to return to Myanmar.
“While the initiation of a path toward national unity between the government and the ethnic groups is encouraging, a systematic lack of protection for minorities across the country remains. Trust remains fragile.”
Yet, she is optimistic that the day will come, based on the commitment showed by both the Burmese government and armed ethnic groups to negotiating a nationwide ceasefire and pursuing continuous political dialogue.
On their part, US senior officials have been actively engaging dialogue with the stakeholders, says Cefkin.
“Our Embassy, under the leadership of Ambassador Derek Mitchell, has travelled to every ethnic state multiple times, listening, consulting, and showing that we are interested in their futures and are invested in an inclusive, transparent peace process.
“We have advocated for broader and deeper inclusion in the peace process, particularly of civil society and women.
“We hope the ethnic conflict can be resolved one day, but it will still require some patience, time and work.”
Until then, she hopes Asean countries, including Malaysia, can continue to provide protection and support to the refugees.
For now, humanitarian access is the immediate concern in the ethnic conflict areas, especially in Rakhine, with healthcare the urgent priority.Ultimately, the US are committed to the long haul as a partner to Myanmar as they tackle the challenges of reform, Cefkin stresses.
“We will continue our diplomatic engagement and capacity-building assistance to bolster their political and economic reform efforts.”