ROHINGYA Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist civilians have fled Rakhine State in the thousands as fighting killed more than 100 people over the weekend – the worst violence to hit the restive northwest of Burma (Myanmar) in five years.
The mass escape from the northern part of Rakhine State was triggered by widespread coordinated offensives by Rohingya insurgents wielding sticks, knives and homemade bombs in attacks on Friday on 30 police posts and an army base.
The violence occurred just days after the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State handed down its final report, in which it recommended Burma improve monitoring of its security forces and hold those accused of human rights abuses accountable.
The Dhaka Tribune reported on Monday hundreds of Rohingya are stranded in “no man’s land” on the Burma-Bangladesh border, as security forces on both sides seek to prevent movement across the border.
“We fled to Bangladesh in terror of our lives,” said a 70-year-old man as quoted by the Bangladeshi daily. “Army men picked one of my sons up. He will never return home because I am sure they have already killed him.”
The violence in the Rakhine marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since last October, when a similar but much smaller Rohingya attack prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of human rights abuses.
“The events of the past 24 hours cast in stark relief the urgent need to take immediate measures to de-escalate conflict and chart a path toward long-term peace, and the recommendations delivered to the government by the [Annan] Commission are an ideal place to start,” said a statement from Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) head Charles Santiago.
The treatment of about 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Burma has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has condemned the attacks and commended the security forces.
The Nobel Peace laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority and of defending the army’s counter-offensive after the October attacks.
“Suu Kyi’s office is implicating aid workers in militancy and suggesting the World Food Programme (WFP) is feeding militants. The WFP and a few other aid groups have kept civilians alive, a population the government would otherwise let starve,” Fortify Rights CEO Matthew Smith said in a statement on Monday.
“Before this recent spate of violence broke out, it was estimated more than 80,000 Rohingya children under the age of five had acute severe malnutrition, also known as wasting, due in large part to strict restrictions on freedom of movement.”
Thousands of Rohingya – mostly women and children – fleeing the violence sought to ford the Naf river separating Burma and Bangladesh and cross the land border.
Some of the refugees who had escaped previous pogroms in Burma said Bangladeshi police had warned them not to help the new arrivals.
“They told us, ‘If anyone gives them shelter, we will arrest you and send you to the other side.’ So, out of fear, we are not allowing any newcomers,” Mohammad Yunus, a Rohingya Muslim, said in a makeshift refugee camp near the border.
Despite these measures, about 2,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh since Friday, according to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
At the no man’s land between the two countries, Reuters reporters saw dozens of Rohingya women, most wearing the all-enveloping burqa, seated in a cramped area under a few black plastic sheets shielding them from the harsh sun.
Gunfire rang out on the Burma side of the border on Saturday and Sunday.
For years, the Rohingya have endured apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Burma, where they are denied citizenship and face severe travel restrictions. Many Burma Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In Burma, the UN and international aid agencies withdrew some staff from the area, after the government said it was investigating whether members of aid groups had been involved in an alleged siege by the insurgents of a village in August.
The state has provided security to aid workers, but “with this kind of situation, no one can fully guarantee safety,” Rakhine State chief minister Nyi Pu said.
“If they want to stay, we will give security as best as we can.”
“If they don’t want to stay, due to their safety concerns, and want to leave, we told them that we will help them.”
The military reported several weekend clashes involving hundreds of Rohingya insurgents across northern Rakhine state.
“Extremist terrorists blew out improvised bombs, set fire to villages and attacked the police outposts in Maungtaw,” the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar daily said on Monday, referring to a major regional town.
The government reported at least 104 deaths – the vast majority militants, plus 12 members of security forces and several civilians.
“The government is again alleging Rohingya are burning down their own homes,” said Fortify Rights’ Smith.
“In doing so, the government is fuelling the idea all Rohingya are intent on deceiving the world and that all Rohingya are combatants. It’s not only incorrect, it’s dangerous.”
The government urged Rohingya civilians to cooperate with security forces, assuring those with without ties to the insurgents they would not be affected.
It has declared the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which instigated the October attacks and claimed responsibility for the latest offensive, a terrorist organisation.
The government’s allegations were baseless, the group said in a statement on Monday, seeking to present its cause as a defence of Rohingya rights.
“The loss of any and all life is a tragedy, and, as lawmakers, we categorically renounce the use of violence, especially against civilians, who remain at serious risk,” added Santiago of APHR.
“The Burma government has a responsibility to protect all civilians, and the Asean region, as well as the broader international community, must actively aid in achieving that goal.”
North Rakhine State is populated mostly by Rohingya Muslims. Thousands of non-Muslim villagers were being evacuated to larger towns, monasteries and police stations, the government said. Many were arming themselves with knives and sticks for fear of insurgent attacks.
“We are afraid of swords because they attack people with swords,” said Than Aye, a 65-year-old villager fleeing the township of Buthidaung for Sittwe, the state capital.
“That’s why we are fleeing from there, as we are afraid of them. I haven’t slept well at night.”
Additional reporting by Reuters