Bangladeshis have a deserved international reputation as champion migrants. But the trauma and tragedy experienced by the boatpeople in the Andaman Sea in recent weeks has focused world attention on a small but equally resourceful community of Muslims who have faced extreme persecution at home in western Myanmar. According to the human rights group Amnesty International, the Rohingya - descended, according to legend, from Arabs who plied the ancient trade routes in the Indian Ocean - suffered 'widespread killing, rape, destruction of mosques and religious persecution' in the 1970s in their enclaves in Myanmar's Arakan (now also called Rakhine) state bordering Bangladesh. In recent times, the Myanmese junta added another atrocity - the Rohingya were forced to work, sometimes without pay, on infrastructure projects in a region on the cusp of an oil and gas boom. As a result, large numbers fled to the Bangladeshi port town of Cox's Bazar, driven as much by poverty as persecution. The more enterprising have gone further afield - Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia. Siddique Ahmed, whose village is near the Arakan capital Sittwe, is typical of such a Rohingya economic refugee. Unable to find work in his home country, he crossed illegally into Bangladesh in September last year. He was hired as a fisherman by a company in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar. The pay would have been paltry - the region is desperately poor even by Bangladeshi standards. Two months later, Mr Ahmed made a decision that would take him into a living hell. The Cox's Bazar area, according to official interrogation reports of the boatpeople now housed in a camp in Port Blair, capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is crawling with 'job agents' - human traffickers who prey on the desperate dreams of the poor for a better life. From November to April, when the sea is not rough, the 'promised land' is Malaysia - reachable illegally in fishing boats via Thailand. Mr Ahmed met one such trafficker, and got a cut-price package - Malaysia for 5,000 takas (HK$575). Coastguard officials say the rate can go up to 20,000 takas. By the end of November he was in a boat with 14 other Myanmese and Bangladeshis heading for a new life when he said soldiers intercepted them near Thailand and, after brutalising them, set them adrift along with 400 others in an unpowered wooden hull. Mr Ahmed is the only survivor from his small group. And unlike the Bangladeshis in the Port Blair camp, he and other Rohingya detainees await a grim fate if they are eventually repatriated to Myanmar and handed over to the military junta. Overpopulated and impoverished Bangladesh hardly produces political refugees today; among the few, the best known is exiled writer Taslima Nasreen. But it still has one of the world's largest outward-bound populations, an overwhelming number of whom are illegal (India has an estimated 12 million illegal Bangladeshis). Almost all are economic migrants, give or take a few hundred jihadi Islamists. Jobless for over a year and idle in his village near Cox's Bazar, Abdul Malik, 22, who used to work as steel scrap cutter in the port city of Chittagong, paid 15,000 takas to a trafficker to join one of the first groups heading for Malaysia. He provided what Indian coastguard officials felt was one of the more authentic accounts of the boatpeople's ordeal after being seized by the Thai military. He revealed how his boat's navigator had a Thai SIM phone card and was in constant touch with a Thai woman, who was to facilitate the group's overland journey to the Thai-Malaysian border. During interrogation in Port Blair, Mr Malik also told of how 'armed Thai army personnel used to torture them [the boatpeople] physically', and described executions of five boatpeople 'in front of some senior Thai officials' - four were shot and a teenager with his hands tied was flung into the sea. He was one of the lucky survivors. Dumped at sea, Mr Malik was one of 300 people who jumped off a drifting barge when land was sighted. It was his youth and swimming ability that saved him - he was among the 11 who managed to swim ashore.