MAUNGDAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - For years, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslim boat people have fled this remote corner of western Myanmar for nearby countries. But another huge exodus has grabbed far fewer headlines.
Ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, bitter rivals of the Rohingya, are also leaving Rakhine State to seek jobs in Malaysia and Thailand. Small numbers of Rakhine are even following the same smuggling routes plied by the Rohingya and, like them, falling victim to human traffickers.
The exodus reflects a wider economic malaise. Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has launched many reforms since taking power in 2011, but hasn’t created enough jobs.
“Go to Rakhine villages and you find only children and old people,” said Tun Maung, a prominent businessman in the Rakhine capital Sittwe. “The young people have already gone.”
The exodus of both Rohingya and Rakhine accelerated in 2012, after a year of violence between the two communities left hundreds dead and 140,000 homeless - mostly Rohingya.
Many displaced Rohingya now live in squalid camps along the Rakhine coast with easy access to ramshackle human-smuggling ships.
About 100,000 Rohingya boat people have left since the 2012 violence, said the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group.
The mass departure of Rakhine has been less noticeable because they usually travel by road and air, carrying passports unavailable to the mostly stateless Rohingya.
But Rakhine have also left in greater numbers since 2012, say Myanmar officials, after the unrest crippled a local economy neglected during nearly half a century of military dictatorship.
Millions of Burmese seek work abroad. About two million live in neighboring Thailand alone, said the International Labour Organisation. Many are unlikely to return until Myanmar’s economy improves.
The Rakhine exodus could worsen those economic woes and communal tensions.
In much of Rakhine state, home to 3.2 million people, the Rohingya are a persecuted minority outnumbered two to one by the Rakhine.
But in the Maungdaw area, on the state’s northern border with Bangladesh, those figures are reversed. Out of 510,000 people, only 30,000 are Rakhine or non-Muslims, township chief Kyi San told Reuters during a rare visit to Maungdaw by a foreign reporter.
As young people abandon their villages for jobs abroad, the Rakhine who remain feel besieged and vulnerable.
Hla Tun Oo, 30, has just returned to Maw Ya Waddy village after seven years working at a factory in Malaysia. In June 2012, while he was gone, the Rakhine village was burned to the ground by a Rohingya mob.
Maw Ya Waddy was rebuilt with the help of the Myanmar government and international aid agencies. It was also militarized.
Soldiers watch the fields from a hilltop. More soldiers are encamped at a Buddhist monastery between Maw Ya Waddy and the populous Rohingya villages along the coast.
Rakhine villages nearby have a permanent police presence, and all are linked by new, military-built roads which allow Rakhine to avoid Rohingya communities. An 11pm to 4am curfew remains in force.
“I was born here and love my land. I want to protect it,” said Hla Tun Oo, explaining why he returned.
But about 100 villagers, including Hla Tun Oo’s two brothers, work in Malaysia or elsewhere, leaving Maw Ya Waddy with only 20 or so men of working age.
Relations with Muslim neighbors remain strained. Rakhine farmers no longer hire them as laborers, as they did before 2012. “We don’t trust them anymore,” said village chief Maung Maung Thein.
Yet the Rakhine have much in common with the Rohingya.
Pyu Tote, 30, a Rakhine with no passport, paid a broker about $600 to smuggle him into Malaysia. Rohingya, who rarely have travel documents, also rely on brokers.
Pyu Tote was driven to southern Myanmar. He crossed into Thailand by boat, then trekked through hilly jungles into Malaysia, a route also plied by thousands of Rohingya.
Thirty people trekked with him. “Most were Rakhine,” said Pyu Tote, who worked at a Malaysian factory for a year.
Like Rohingya, the Rakhine are also vulnerable to exploitation. In August the International Organization for Migration arranged the return of 14 Rakhine men who were trafficked onto Thai fishing boats in Indonesian waters earlier this year.
The men were lured by the promise of well-paid jobs in Thailand.
Many Rakhine families depend on remittances from overseas. Hla Tun Oo sent home about $200 a month, and had saved another $20,000 after seven years in Malaysia.
But the departure of so many young Rakhine isn’t helping a local economy reeling from the 2012 bloodshed.
Rakhine State suffers from chronic poverty. Malnutrition is rife and its infrastructure is shoddy or non-existent, with factories few and far between.
After 2012, the price of vegetables and seafood, largely supplied by Rohingya, soared. So did the cost of labor. Sittwe businesses aren’t allowed to hire Rohingya, who were driven from the city and are now confined in distant camps ringed by police checkpoints.
“Violence and segregation have hit the economy hard,” said Richard Horsey, an independent Myanmar analyst. “Muslims are stuck in camps, unable to work, and the instability has made it harder to attract vital foreign investment.”
Economic growth would encourage Rakhine job-seekers to stay put. Or so hopes Tun Maung, the Sittwe businessman, who runs two restaurants and a hotel.
He has advertised for staff for six months. “Nobody has applied,” he said.
Editing by Dean Yates