New fires belie Myanmar claims
Rohingya accused of burning own homes
BANGKOK: Journalists saw new fires burning in a Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and pages ripped from Islamic texts that were left on the ground. That intensifies doubts about government claims that members of the persecuted minority have been destroying their own homes.
About two dozen journalists saw the fires in Gawdu Zara village in northern Rakhine state on a government-controlled trip.
About 164,000 Rohingya from the area have fled across the border into Bangladesh in less than two weeks since Aug 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police outposts in Gawdu Zara and several other villages, the UN refugee agency said Thursday.
The military has said nearly 400 people, mostly Rohingya, have died in clashes and that troops were conducting “clearance operations”. It blames insurgents for setting their own villages on fire, without offering proof.
Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, however, have described large-scale violence perpetrated by Myanmar troops and Buddhist mobs — setting fire to their homes, spraying bullets indiscriminately, stabbing civilians and ordering them to abandon their homes or be killed.
On the Myanmar side of the border, reporters saw no Rohingya in any of the five destroyed villages they were allowed to tour on Thursday, making it unlikely they could have been responsible for the new fires.
An ethnic Rakhine villager who emerged from the smoke said police and Rakhine Buddhists had set the fires. The villager ran off before he could be asked anything else.
No police officers were seen in the village beyond those who were accompanying the journalists. But about 10 Rakhine men with machetes were seen there. They looked nervous and the only one who spoke said he had just arrived and did not know how the fires started.
Among the buildings on fire was a madrassa. Copies of books with texts from the Koran were torn up and thrown outside.
Another village the journalists visited, Ah Lel Than Kyaw, was blackened, obliterated and deserted. Cattle and dogs wandered through the smouldering remains.
Local police officer Aung Kyaw Moe said 18 people were killed in the village when the violence began last month.
“From our side, there was one immigration officer dead, and we found 17 dead bodies from the enemy side,” he said.
Virtually all buildings in the village seen by journalists had been burned, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles that fleeing villagers left behind. A mosque was also damaged.
Columns of smoke could be seen rising in the distance, and distant gunshots could be heard.
“They burned their own houses and ran away,” Aung Kyaw Moe said. “We didn’t see who actually burned them because we had to take care of the security for our outpost. ... But when the houses were burned, Bengalis were the only ones in the village.”
Buddhist-majority Myanmar refers to Rohingya as Bengalis, contending they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Burning the homes of Rohingya can make it less likely they will return. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes in another wave of violence in 2012. Many are now confined to camps, while the land they once held is either vacant or occupied by Buddhist squatters.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger based in Europe with contacts in northern Rakhine, said that according to witnesses, the Myanmar military, border guard police and Rakhine villagers came to Ah Lel Than Kyaw and burned the houses from Monday to Wednesday.
On Aug 25, he said, young men with swords and knives tried to attack border guards in Aley Than Kyaw but failed. The authorities took away all Buddhist villagers, and many Rohingya villagers fled on their own.
Nay San Lwin said the remaining villagers left after the military warned them they would be shot if they did not leave.
Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has dismissed the Rohingya crisis as a misinformation campaign. According to her office, she said such misinformation helps promote the interests of “terrorists”, a reference to the Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts on Aug 25.
The crisis response director for Amnesty International called Ms Suu Kyi’s response “unconscionable”.
On Thursday, Ms Suu Kyi told reporters her government was working to improve security and livelihoods for Rohingya, but that “it’s a little unreasonable to expect us to resolve everything in 18 months” since her administration took office.
With Rohingya fleeing by the thousands daily across the border, pushing existing camps in Bangladesh to the brink, the government in Dhaka pledged to build at least one more.
The International Organisation f or Migration has pleaded for US$18 million in foreign aid to help feed and shelter tens of thousands now packed into makeshift settlements or stranded in a no man’s land between the two countries’ borders.
A house burns in Gawdu Zara village near Maungdaw in Myanmar’s Rakhine state yesterday.