Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar are trying to cross the border with Bangladesh, Bangladeshi security officials say, as fresh fighting erupted in Myanmar’s north-western Rakhine state.
Authorities in Myanmar say close to 100 people have been killed including nearly 80 insurgents and 12 members of the security forces since Friday when armed men, reportedly from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), launched a pre-dawn raid on police outposts in the restive region.
However, advocates for the Rohingya have given a much higher death toll, telling Al Jazeera that at least 800 of the Muslim minority, including dozens of women and children, have been killed in the violence.
The attacks marked a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since last October, when a similar offensive prompted a major military sweep beset by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
Aziz Khan, a Maungdaw resident, said 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. Women and children were also among the dead. “Even a baby wasn’t spared”, he said.
Mean while, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday (Aug 28) urged the international community to step up efforts to help Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority, saying the world was “blind and deaf” to their plight.
“Of course we condemn this in the strongest possible manner. And we will follow this up through international institutions, including at the United Nations,” added Erdogan.
World’s most persecuted people
Rejected by the country they call home and unwanted by its neighbours, the Rohingya are impoverished, virtually stateless and have been fleeing Myanmar in large groups and for decades.
The Rohingya people have been described as “amongst the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”
Why are they persecuted?
The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities and say they are descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have been in the region for generations.
But Myanmar’s government denies them citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – a common attitude among many Burmese.
This recent violence stems back to decades of persecution in Burma. Human Rights Watch traces the conflict back to the Second World War when Burma was still under British rule.
It starts with 1941 Japanese invasion on Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims maintained their loyalty to Britain, sparking decades of violence between the country’s Muslim minority and Buddhist majority community.
According to some estimates, separate military campaigns in 1978 and 1991 forced more than 450,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country with systematic murders and arson. Many of them returned and grouped into northern Rakhine state, where the violence continues.
Myanmar President Thein Sein even suggested after the June 2012 attacks that all Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar should be deported to other countries.
In recent months, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh amid a military crackdown in Rakhine state. They have told horrifying stories of rapes, killings and house burnings, which the government of Myanmar – formerly Burma – has claimed are “false” and “distorted”.
But UN officials have told the BBC that the Rohingya are being collectively punished for militant attacks, with the ultimate goal being ethnic cleansing.
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.
Fight or die
As per AFP, Shah Alam, a community leader from Rakhine state, said 30 young men from three villages in his district joined ARSA “for our freedom”.
“Do they have any other choice? They chose to fight and die rather than be slaughtered like sheep,” he told AFP.
In another incident, Begum from Kutupalong camp, whose husband stayed behind in Myanmar to join the growing ranks of Rohingya men answering the call to arms against security forces said, “He bid us farewell, saying if I live he’d see us soon in a free Arakan (Rakhine state) or else we’ll meet in heaven,” she added, breaking down in tears.
What Aung San Suu Kyi is doing?
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and national leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted Muslim minority, and of defending the army’s counter offensive after the October attacks.
“I’m not saying there are no difficulties,” she told Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia in December.” But it helps if people recognise the difficulty and are more focused on resolving these difficulties rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is.”
Last year in her media comments, Ms Suu Kyi said Rakhine Buddhists “are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population percentage-wise” and said she wanted to improve relations between the two communities.
As per Al Jazeera, Matthew Smith, chief executive officer at Fortify Rights, a human rights group said, “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”.