Residents accuse security forces of shooting ‘indiscriminately’ at the Muslim minority, killing many. ‘Even babies were not spared.’
The Myanmar army has been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings in the restive Rakhine region, with residents and activists accusing soldiers of shooting indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children and carrying out arson attacks, sending thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.
Bracing for more violence, thousands of Rohingya – mostly women and children – attempted to cross the Naf river separating Burma and Bangladesh and the land border, but were stopped by the latter’s border security forces.
Reuters reporters at the border heard gunfire from the Burmese side, which triggered a rush of Rohingya towards the no man’s land between the countries.
Several hundred Rohingya got stuck at one border point in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district, barred from moving farther by Bangladeshi border guards.
Around 2,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh so far, according to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh report The Independent.
Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but about 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya live in the northern part of Rakhine state, where the violence is taking place.
Authorities in Myanmar say more than 104 people have been killed since Friday when armed men (militants), reportedly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched a pre-dawn raid on police outposts in the restive region.
The army has declared a war against “terrorism” (a new narrative), encircling the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung, home to around 800,000 people, and imposed a curfew from 6pm to 6am local standard time.
However, advocates for the Rohingya have given a much higher death toll, telling international news media that at least 800 of the Muslim minority, including dozens of women and children, have been killed in the violence.
Al Jazeera said in its report it could not independently verify the figures.
Aziz Khan, a Maungdaw resident, told international media the army stormed his village early on Friday and began “firing indiscriminately at people’s cars and homes.
“Government forces and the border guard police killed at least 11 people in my village. When they arrived they started shooting at everything that moved. Some soldiers then carried out arson attacks.
“Women and children were also among the dead,” he said. “Even a baby wasn’t spared.”
Ro Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger based in Europe, said anywhere between 5,000 – 10,000 people had been driven from their homes by the recent offensive.
Using a network of activists on the ground to document the conflict, San Lwin said mosques and madrasas (religious Islamic institutions) had been burned to the ground, with thousands of Muslims stranded without food and shelter.
“My own uncles were forced to flee by the government and the military,” he told Al Jazeera.
“There has been no help from the government, instead people’s homes have been destroyed and their goods looted.
“Without food, shelter and protection, they don’t know when we’ll be killed.”
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Speaking to Doha-based Ak Jazeera TV channel under a pseudonym, Myint Lwin, a resident of Buthidaung township said that “fear had gripped every household.
“People have been sharing videos of the killings on WhatsApp. Videos of women and children being killed. Innocent men being shot dead. You can’t begin to imagine how scared we are.
“Nobody wants to leave their home. Muslims are scared to go anywhere, hospitals, markets, anywhere. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
Videos uploaded on social media showed dozens of men, women and children fleeing with only the clothes on their backs while seeking refuge in rice and paddy fields.
Security has deteriorated sharply in Rakhine since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government sent thousands of troops into Rohingya villages and hamlets last October after nine policemen were killed by suspected Rohingya armed group in attacks on border posts.
The security forces’ offensive has been beset by allegations of arson, killings and rape; and forced more than 87,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, a human rights group, said with the “authorities treating all Rohingya as combatants”, the government’s account of the violence would be “dubious at best”.
“The government has refused to cooperate with a UN fact-finding Mission on Rakhine and there are serious allegations of the military attacking unarmed civilians,” he told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
“A lot of people are on the run and they need serious protection and the authorities have not made it easy to help them.”
Rakhine state is home to most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya, who live largely in abject poverty and face widespread discrimination by the Buddhist majority.
The minority are widely reviled as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, despite having lived in the area for generations.
They have been rendered stateless by the government and the UN believes the army’s crackdown may amount to ethnic cleansing – a charge the government of Aung San Suu Kyi vehemently denies.