The soldiers descended on the fishing village of Dhoncha Para in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state on Friday just as the holy period of Eid al-Adha was beginning.
“They attacked the village from a ship,” says Rehana Khatun, a 30-year-old mother of three from the country’s Rohingya minority, who describes how the soldiers doused the houses with petrol and set them ablaze. Ms Khatun says her two brothers were killed and her husband and father are missing. She escaped on foot to Kutupalong, a refugee camp at the Bangladesh border.
Her story echoes those of others among the tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees who have streamed into Bangladesh in less than two weeks. Nur Khalima, a 25-year-old cradling an infant with fever, says she fled across the border from her home village of Gora Khali a week ago. “My younger brother was killed,” she says of Sader, 12, who was shot in the back.
The upsurge in violence against the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military and armed civilians has fed anger in the Muslim world and sullied the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the former freedom fighter who is the nation’s de facto leader.
Human rights groups have accused Aung San Suu Kyi’s transition government of condoning human rights violations against not only the Rohingya but other ethnic minorities, including in parts of Kachin and Shan states in the country’s north.
Malala Yousafzai, the champion of girls’ education, has urged Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to join her in condemning what she called Myanmar’s “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya, who were rendered stateless in 1982 when the country passed a citizenship law effectively denying them Burmese nationality. “Rohingya people should be given citizenship in Myanmar, the country where they were born,” she wrote on Sunday.
The crisis has stretched the goodwill of the international donor community, which is heavily invested in Myanmar’s transition from military toward quasi-civilian rule. “The de facto leader [Aung San Suu Kyi] has a political and moral responsibility on this issue, and she is failing on both counts,” says Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, angry protests have been staged outside the Myanmar embassy in recent days. Jakarta on Sunday dispatched Retno Marsudi, foreign minister, to Myanmar to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, has accused the country of “genocide”.
The UN has estimated that 73,000 Rohingya fled the violence in Myanmar in the ten days to Sunday. The upsurge is being seen as retaliation for attacks on police posts and a military base by the Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rakhine-based militant group.
Rakhine’s Rohingya have been a target of persecution since Burma was founded in 1948, and serious violence has wracked the state sporadically since the 1970s.
The latest flare-up is the biggest outbreak of violence since October when attacks on border posts and policemen by the same group, then called Al-Yaqin, provoked a military crackdown that led tens of thousands to flee into Bangladesh.
Human rights campaigners say attacks by Buddhist extremists against Muslims have surged across the country since its transition to democracy began in 2012, with the Rohingya bearing the brunt.
Rakhine’s mostly Muslim Rohingya population totalled 1.1m before the latest bout of fighting. Some Buddhists and Hindus have also been displaced by the violence.
However, the UN has acknowledged that its estimates of people displaced by the violence are rough. Thousands more refugees are thought to be hiding in the jungle or moving towards Bangladesh, raising fears that some will run short of food.
The Myanmar government limits aid agencies’ and journalists’ access to the Rohingya heartlands in Rakhine.
Evidence of what is happening on the ground — such as it is — comes from the stories told by refugees flowing into Bangladesh, or from videos circulated online showing the smouldering ruins of Rohingya villages.
The Financial Times on Monday saw at least 10 plumes of smoke rising from the Myanmar side of the Naf river that marks the border with Bangladesh.
“We are talking about the most serious crimes that could be perpetrated against a civilian population,” says Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, a human rights group. “It has been described as genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity; I think all of these terms apply to what we are seeing.”
Myanmar authorities say they are conducting an operation to destroy what Aung San Suu Kyi has described as “Bengali extremists”, and argue that ARSA poses a critical security threat.
However, Mr Smith believes the militant group has “very few members”, that many were paid to join and are equipped with only sticks and knives, and that some fled during the recent attacks.
Some Rohingya at the Bangladeshi border told the Financial Times that further ARSA attacks inside Myanmar were imminent. If true, this would threaten a redoubling of the military’s violent campaign.
As the refugees gathered for Eid prayers in one of Kutupalong’s makeshift mosques, one says: “Last Eid al-Adha, I slaughtered a cow in the name of God. This year I have nothing.”
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