Dozens Believed Killed in Helicopter Attack

Rohingya Muslim refugees hiding in Bangladesh say they were targeted by a Burmese helicopter.
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Army helicopters sit on the tarmac at the airport in Sittwe, June 12, 2012.
Army helicopters sit on the tarmac at the airport in Sittwe, June 12, 2012.

A Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board, according to refugees.

The three ethnic Rohingyas, whose names have been withheld because they are currently in hiding, said their group put out to sea in six boats heading to Teknaf in the southernmost part of Bangladesh on June 8 at around 4 p.m.

They said that they saw the helicopter take off from the area of Sittwe, the capital of western Burma’s Rakhine state, between 30 and 60 minutes after they launched their boats from Burmese soil.

One of the three refugees—a young father who made it to Bangladesh after the ordeal—said that the helicopter then circled above three of the boats that had fallen behind for nearly 20 minutes while setting fire to them.

“We saw something reddish fall on the boats and they instantly caught fire,” he said.

“The helicopter was circling in the sky above the burning boats.”

Burmese denial

Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein denied reports of the attack in an interview with RFA on Saturday.

“It is absolutely untrue,” Hla Thein said, responding to the refugees’ allegation that the boats were attacked by a helicopter.

Col. Htein Linn, minister for border area and security affairs in Rakhine state, said Saturday he knew nothing about such an incident.

Aye Maung, a member of parliament for the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) said that authorities have only one helicopter stationed at Sittwe airport and that it is unarmed. He said the helicopter is used only as transportation for the regional prime minister.

Calls to the Burmese foreign ministry and to the Burmese Embassy in Washington went unanswered Saturday.

Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein in an undated photo. Credit: RFA
Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein in an undated photo. Credit: RFA RFA

Boats burned

The refugees said that it was unclear from their vantage point whether the crew of the helicopter had made any demands.

“We could not hear any other sound, as the sound of the engines of our boats was much louder. Additionally, our boat was at a distance [from where the incident occurred],” the young father said.

He said that all of the nearly 50 occupants of the three boats that caught fire were presumed killed, including men, women, and “very young children.”

“Most of the children killed in the attack were under the age of 10,” he said.

The three refugees said that many of their family members and close friends were among the occupants of the destroyed boats.

Afterwards, they said, the helicopter flew off in the direction of Sittwe.

“They burned three of our six boats,” the young father said.

“Only one of the boats we boarded managed to reach the shore in Bangladesh, as far as I know of.”

He said that his boat had twice been pushed back to sea by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), but that they were finally able to find a location to land and make their way onto Bangladeshi soil.

The members of his group were unaware of what had happened to the other two boats that had escaped the helicopter attack.

The alleged attack could not be independently verified. Staff members from international aid organizations, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program had been recalled to Rangoon for safety reasons following the outbreak of ethnic violence in Rakhine state.

Denied entry

Earlier, RFA had reported that it was unclear whether the helicopter was of Burmese or Bangladeshi origin, but that the refugees had been targeted after being turned away by authorities in Bangladesh.

But the Bangladeshi newspaper The New Nation reported Friday that the BGB had denied that any such incident had taken place.

The New Nation reported Friday that the BGB detained 16 Rohingyas who had tried to sneak into the country, also near Teknaf, over a 12-hour period on Thursday.

The latest detentions bring to 946 the number of Rohingyas who have been detained while seeking refuge in Bangladesh since sectarian violence erupted between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine state in early June.

At least 2,000 Rohingyas have tried to enter Bangladesh since the clashes began.

Bangladesh says that its resources are already overly strained and has refused to accept the Rohingyas despite appeals from the United Nations to grant them refugee status.

Bangladeshi officials estimate that a total of 300,000 Rohingya people live in the country, with only about a tenth of them in two official refugee camps in the southern district of Cox's Bazaar.

Burma considers the Rohingyas to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship while Bangladesh says Rohingyas have been living in Burma for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.

Bangladesh law minister Shafique Ahmed on Saturday called on Burma to respect the rights of the Rohingyas and to recognize them as citizens of the country.

“The people of Myanmar [Burma] have rights to live in their country and the government of that country should ensure that their citizens can live there,” Shafique told Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper.

Reported by an RFA correspondent in Bangladesh with additional reporting by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CORRECTION – RFA has corrected information in a previous article to show that the Rohingya refugees were attacked by a helicopter shortly after leaving Burma and not after being turned away by authorities in Bangladesh as previously reported.

Comments (5)

MJ. Mark from China

Base on Karl statement, and in addition to the killings to finish ethnic Muslim Rohingya, the military and RNDP are trying all options in this regard, and in fact it was Burmese helicoter that attacked and killed people, becoz the burmese use this kind of helicopters to kill Christan in Kayin State and in Kachan State, which is why many ethnic christians and muslims are dying without any basic freedom and human rights in Burma. UN, the U.S and EU must make urgent efforts to put a stop the killings in Arakan State.

Jun 26, 2012 02:04 PM


from Myitkyina Kachin

I have no idea why you are comparing Kachin with Rohingya. There are a few facts to clarify with this issue. First, Rohingya is not ethnic group. Second, we have to discrimination against Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Bengali immigrants are calling themselves as Rohingya and creating conflicts. Three, They have been attacking Rakhines and we have a proven history record of their violence. Four, we have no history of such ethnicity in our country. Kachin did not kill other citizens like Bengalis. If you have no idea of right facts, don't bother to comment. We, other ethnic groups, will stand with our Rakhine brothers and sisters, regardless of their religion. We won't let them abused by anyone. Thank you.

Jun 27, 2012 08:49 AM


from Yangon

1) if the surviving ppl saw the chopper from their boats, the chopper surely could spot them. Why didn't the chopper in question peruse them?

2) Why would Burmese army want them dead if they are already fleeing from country for everyone's good?

3) Burmese military don't use air power even in critical missions. Like Karl mentioned above, it cost great deal of money and I know my cheap Gov. They'd rather send a P.T Boat or just wait them on the shore in case they change their mind and return, which is most unlikely.

4) it is the other country which would afraid more refugees would come and act rashly....

Jun 24, 2012 06:24 PM

John from Rangoon

Why to kill dying and fleeing Rohingya people and where are the international communities, the UN and powerful governments of the world that fight to save human beings for justices and basic freedoms, and why they are working or making humane efforts like they do in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, elsewhere in our world to bring the killers to face justice?

Jun 24, 2012 12:11 PM


from US Navy

real life is nothing like a Hollywood movie. Operating a military helicopter costs $8000/hour AT A MINIMUM. It is not believable that such an attack occurred.

Jun 24, 2012 07:53 AM

Kyaw swe

from mg daw

It is burmese government's plan to kill and throw away Islamic religious from their Buddist country Burma.

Jun 23, 2012 09:52 PM

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