Nearly 4,000 residents of northwest Myanmar’s Rakhine state have poured into the regional capital Sittwe in recent days to escape fighting in the countryside pitting Myanmar security forces against Muslim insurgents, local authorities and community leaders in Sittwe say.
More than 26,000 people have already fled from rural areas to Sittwe city and Maungdaw, Buthedaung, and other townships in Rakhine from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4, with at least 59 villages burned during the same period, Myanmar’s Government Information Committee said this week.
Individual donors are providing food and health care to those in need in Sittwe, and displaced persons are being housed at 21 Buddhist monasteries in the city, local sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“As this is now the rainy season, it is impossible to put them in tents,” community leader and writer Saw Win told RFA. “This is why we are [temporarily] turning the monasteries into refugee camps.”
“We will face great difficulties in the long term, though,” he added.
Hundreds of Hindu families have joined the thousands of mainly Rakhine ethnic refugees now fleeing into Sittwe, with some saying their villages had been targeted in attacks by Muslim fighters.
“About 40 terrorists came into our village, beating villagers,” Maung Hla, a Hindu refugee from a village in Maungdaw township, told RFA.
“They also beat my wife, and she was sent to Sittwe Hospital. They also killed my son-in-law that night,” he said.
At least 20 of the attackers wore long face coverings over camouflage shirts, with others clearly identifiable as local people, Maung Hla said.
“My grandchild’s family and a family of my relatives from Myinlhe village fled to Maungdaw as well, but they were fired on by terrorists on the road,” he said, adding, “One was sent to the hospital and is still alive, but the rest are all dead.”
“These Muslim terrorists set fire to villages,” he said.
“I am 65 and we haven’t had any problems with the Muslims in the past. I don’t know why they did this to us.”
Police posts attacked
Violence broke out in Rakhine on Aug. 24 when members of an Islamic insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched multiple attacks on Myanmar police posts in the state.
Since then, Myanmar security forces and militias linked to them have been accused of targeting Muslim Rohingya civilians in mass killings. At least 400 people, including 370 insurgents, have been killed in recent clashes, Myanmar officials said late last week.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh, many telling of horrific attacks, while Human Rights Watch has published satellite photos of burned-out Rohingya villages.
Last week, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan accused Myanmar of carrying out a genocide against the Rohingya people.
In a Sept. 5 statement, however, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she had assured Erdogan in a phone call that Turkey has been misled by “fake news photographs” of atrocities taken at other times and in other place in the world.
“[This is] simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists,” Aung San Suu Kyi said, according to the statement.
“The Government has already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi in her remarks to Erdogan may have been downplaying “horrific reports coming out of the area,” though, Amnesty International (AI) Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan said in a Sept. 6 statement.
“With tens of thousands of Rohingya pouring across the border [into Bangladesh], and thousands of others displaced in the state, the evidence that the Myanmar military has launched a vicious campaign of retaliatory violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people is overwhelming,” AI said in its statement.
“The government must allow immediate and unfettered access to aid organizations, which have been blocked from helping those who are stranded in the northern part of the state.”
The Office of the State Counselor meanwhile urged vigilance on Sept. 5 following reports of planned bomb attacks by Muslim extremists against civilians in the capital Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay, and other big cities in the country.
“The aim of such attacks will be to attract international focus on and to garner support for their activities in Maungdaw and Buthedaung in Rakhine State,” the statement said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.