Eight Hindu women and eight children who were abducted by Muslim militants and taken to a refugee camp in Bangladesh have provided further details upon their return to Myanmar about the slaughter of Hindu villagers in northern Rakhine, the Myanmar government said Thursday.
The group was among those abducted by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants who carried out deadly attacks on 30 police outposts and an army facility on Aug. 25 in northern Rakhine state.
Local Hindus and the Myanmar government in late September said that ARSA militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages in the Kha Maung Seik village tract the same day, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves.
The militants also forced some of the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Muslim refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar security forces found the mass graves on Sept. 24 and 25. Fifty-two Hindus were killed, and 192 others are still missing.
The eight Hindu women who witnessed the killings of residents of Yebaw Kya village returned to Myanmar with a police escort following a Myanmar government demand and the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s instruction to bring them back, said a statement issued by the State Counselor’s Office.
Myanmar’s official account of the incident could not be independently confirmed, and the government has not allowed outside observers or media close, unfettered access to the conflict zone.
The eight women, who range in age from 15 to 25, told authorities that a group of about 500 Muslims militants led by a foreigner dressed in black and a local named Noru Lauk from Khamaungseik village entered their homes at about 8 a.m. on Aug. 25. They took their belongings, including their jewelry and mobile phones.
According to the women, the militants said, “This is not your village. It is our territory. We are the sole owners of this land. You are all the same as the Myanmar Armed Forces and police members. We will murder Buddhists and all of you who worship the statues made of bricks and stones.”
The militants then divided the villagers into two groups according to gender, tied their hands, and took them to Bawtala village, the women said, according to the government’s statement.
They slashed the throats of the men, sliced up their bodies, and threw them in nearby pits, the women said.
The ARSA attack and subsequent crackdown by the Myanmar military prompted about 30,000 Hindus and other non-Muslims living in northern Rakhine to flee south to Mrauk U, Sittwe, Kyauktaw, and Minbya, while more than 500,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh, the statement said.
Converted to Islam
The Hindu women also said that the lives of eight girls and women were spared because the militants considered them beautiful and decided to convert them to Islam.
In the presence of the eight young women who were spared, ARSA militants killed Hindus from Yebaw Kya village, they said. A group of eight Hindu females and their children from the village were then taken to a cow ranch near Bawtalar village where they were killed.
A three-year-old boy named Phawlar, who was included in the group, saw the militants slash his father’s throat before he was killed, they said. Local Muslims, whose names they recalled, guarded some other Hindu girls and children, while others left to set fire to police camps.
After some of the militants returned, they took the eight Hindu women and young children to a house in Bawtalar village and forced them to eat rice and meat, the latter of which their religion prohibits them from consuming, the women said.
The militants also instructed them about the lifestyle and behavior of Muslim women before taking them to the Bangladesh border on Aug. 27, where they passed through cut barbed wire and spent the night on a hill so they would not be detected by Bangladeshi border guards.
Early on Aug. 28, the group crossed the border into Bangladesh and were taken by car to Kutuparlaung refugee camp where they were housed with Muslims and forced to wear burqas, the women said.
Later that day, when foreign media conducted interviews at the camp, the militants told the Hindus to lie and say that that their families were killed by Myanmar army soldiers and Rakhine ethnics who forced them to flee out of fear for their lives.
The women said that the militants threatened to slash their children’s throats unless they did as they were told, the government’s statement said.
A 15-year-old named Raj Kumari was forced to marry a Muslim man named Barbu who worked at the camp, they said. The news was reported to Hindu leader Shaw Phaw Nam Shaw Mar Raw Ni who lives in Bangladesh and was made aware that the abducted Hindus were being converted to Islam.
He contacted the Bangladeshi border guards and went to the camp to find the eight Hindu women and their children, though the Muslim militants had fled.
The women and children were taken to a Bangladesh border guard camp for the night and later collected by a Hindu priest who took them to his home.
On Aug. 30, Bangladeshi government officials transported them back to Kutuparlaung Camp, saying that they would provide relief supplies for them. They stayed on a chicken farm inside the refugee camp where they were guarded by a Bangladeshi Hindu, the women said.
On Sept. 19, one of the women was able to call her brother-in-law in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township and told him the location where the villagers, including her husband, were killed. Seven days later, she was able to contact Hindu religious leader Ni Mal in Sittwe, who suggested the women and children return to Myanmar with help from Myanmar security forces.
The women left the camp on the pretext of visiting a Hindu religious festival and arrived in Myanmar with the help of security forces, the government’s statement said.
More village fires
The Aug. 25 ARSA attacks triggered a brutal military campaign against Rohingya civilians to try to find the militants and those who collaborated with them.
Rights groups, the United Nations, and some of the half-million Rohingya who fled to neighboring Bangladesh have accused soldiers of committing atrocities aginst Muslims.
ARSA also carried out a deadly attack on border guard stations in northern Rakhine in October 2016, which prompted an army crackdown that forced about 90,000 Rohingya to flee their homes.
The government has denied the allegations and accused Muslim militants of torching villages, killing Hindus, and driving out non-Muslims.
On Thursday, the office of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, said on its Facebook page that Rohingya militants have set fire to homes in northern Rakhine during the last few days to drive a further exodus of Muslims to Bangladesh.
Security forces in Mi Chaung Zay village in Buthidaung township helped villagers put out the fires started by an ARSA militant in the early hours on Thursday, the post said.
Rohingya who have fled Bangladesh contend that the army has continued to use arson to intimidate them and force them out of their homes, though the Myanmar government said previously that all military operations had ended on Sept. 5.
U.N. officials have said what Myanmar has done in Rakhine amounts to ethnic cleansing — a term used Thursday in Washington by Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We identify this as full-fledged ethnic cleansing,” he told a hearing on the Rakhine crisis.
A U.S. State Department official told the House panel that the military crackdown in northern Rakhine could destabilize the region and invite international terrorists, the Associated Press reported.
“Burma’s nascent democracy is at a turning point and a heavy-handed response invites international terrorists and challenges for other neighbors," Patrick Murphy, a senior U.S. official for Southeast Asia, told the committee.
Despite government assurances that security operations ended in early September, vigilantes are still torching Rohingya homes and blocking humanitarian assistance from reaching those who need it, he said.
He also said that besides the half-million Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh, an estimated 200,000 people have been internally displaced in Rakhine.
Myanmar has long marginalized the Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship, though many have lived in the country for decades. They are subject to systematic discrimination and denied access to jobs and basic services.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.