Women and children shot where they fell
When the Myanmar army stormed Nur Ali’s northern Rakhine state village of Boli Bazar on August 27, setting fire to houses and shooting at people as they ran from their burning buildings, there was no attempt to sort civilians from alleged militants.
“They didn’t ask any questions. They didn’t say anything. They just started shooting,” Nur Ali told The Australian from his tarpaulin shelter at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
“All they said is: ‘You’re all Rohingya. You’re all al Yaquin’ (the local term for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army).
“If people fell as they ran they were shot. Among them were children, women and old men too. Those who could not come out of their houses were burned alive.”
Rohingya men and boys of all ages were treated as militants, according to many refugees interviewed in Bangladesh camps and at border crossings.
Whether through fear or ignorance, few among the 400,000 Rohingya now jostling for space and scant resources inside Bangladesh’s overcrowded Cox’s Bazar on Myanmar’s western border will admit to knowing anything of the newly formed ARSA. The group says it is fighting for the restoration of Rohingya rights and citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and denies any religious motivation or links to Islamic militants.
That hasn’t stopped extremist groups such as Islamic State, alQa’ida and Pakistan’s Lashkar-eTaiba from using the latest Rohingya crisis as a rallying cry for recruitment.
ARSA has also denied targeting civilians, though its militants have been accused of killing at least six Hindus — including three children — and targeting other non-Muslim groups in northern Rakhine state during last month’s attacks, which sparked the military’s latest counter-offensive.
Within hours of ARSA’s deadly August 25 attacks on Rakhine security posts, the gov- ernment declared it a terrorist organisation. While many Rohingya elders condemned the group’s violent tactics, there are fears support is growing among disaffected young men in particular. Nur Ali said that within Bangladesh’s exploding Rohingya refugee community there was talk of fighting back, though he was quick to add the idea was hopeless.
“How will Rohingya fight back?” he asked. “The military have weapons they can use to attack us from two miles (3.2km) away. We have nothing. If a Rohingya is found with even a sixinch (15cm) knife they’re jailed for 20 years.”
At Bangladesh’s Palongkhali border crossing, Salamat Ullah said: “No one knows much about ARSA. We heard about them but we don’t see them. All we know about them is what the government has said. If we had known them to really exist then we would have wanted to join them. But how can we do that? We don’t know who they are.”
Myanmar’s government insisted it was targeting only ARSA militants, whom it accuses of trying to create an Islamic state in Rakhine. It claims to have killed close to 400 combatants, though refugees fleeing the region uniformly tell of mass civilian killings, and of bodies lining roads and paths to the border.
Hossain Shaha, a Rohingya businessman from Shahab Bazar in northern Rakhine who was forced to flee with his family on August 26, said he believed ARSA was “fighting for the cause of the Rohingya” even if their emergence had “made things worse”.
Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya minority has for years been subjected to state persecution, including the retraction of citizenship rights and the denial of public health and education services. The Myanmar state insists Rohingya are recent Muslim interlopers from Bangladesh, despite many families tracing their Myanmar ancestry back generations. But Mr Hossain added: “We don’t blame ARSA for (the crisis). The military was looking for an excuse to do such things. We had no other option but to fight for our rights.”
Rohingya refugees line up at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh to await biometric registration last week