By Catherine Bennett, Anglophone Journalist, France24
OBSERVERS: Rahim (Maungdaw) and Sabit R.
Violence in Burma’s Rakhine State escalated over the weekend, with videos of burnt corpses and villages set alight posted on Twitter and Facebook. This is the latest installment of a long and brutal crackdown by Burma’s military on members of the Muslim Rohingya minority. Raids carried out last month in the same region led to thousands of Rohinygya being displaced from their villages. Our Observers have had to flee their villages and all they own to escape the latest wave of persecution.
WARNING: Some of the following images may shock readers.
State media reported that at least 69 people were killed in army raids over the weekend of November 12 and 13, along with 17 soldiers. The military claimed that those killed were “violent attackers”, and the raids are a necessary step in routing out terrorists from the villages of Rakhine State. The attacks are part of same “security sweep” launched by the military in October, in a bid to wipe out a previously unknown Rohingya group called Aqa Lul Mujahidin. This new group is reported to have links to the Organization for Rohingya Security, an armed group that was active in the 1990s but has faded from view in the past few years.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country of Burma. A law passed in 1982 does not allow Rohingya to claim Burmese citizenship – as a result the Rohingya are stateless and subject to restrictions on movement. Decades of an effective apartheid in the country means the Rohingya are subject to intense discrimination.
Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, on the western coast of the country, has a large Rohingya population. The Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, controls the security forces in the state. Local border guard police and Tatmadaw have been conducting arrests in different villages over the past few days.
The Rohingya have been forced to flee as their homes were set alight. Images of charred bodies lying amid the debris of a destroyed village were posted on social media.
Authorities stated that the torched villages were a result of the fires “set by violent attackers”
, and were not the work of the security forces.
An official statement reads: “Violent attackers have also set fire to houses in villages in order to cause misunderstandings about the security forces that are conducting the clearance operations in the township.” The military also denounced “fabricated stories made in collusion with the media” in an attempt “to receive assistance from the international community”.
“No one would ever burn their own house” Rahim (Maungdaw)
Rahim is a Rohingya who lives in Maungdaw township. He refuted the military’s statement.
It is so difficult for Rohingya to get permission to build a house. If it burnt down we would need to apply again for a permit to build, so no one would ever put themselves through that. It is dangerous to live here. It had become normal but now it is getting worse. People are leaving to escape the violence. All of the roads are blocked, the only road is to Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch has called for the launch of an investigation by the Burmese government, and has published before and after satellite images of villages in the region. The organisation said they had identified 430 destroyed buildings, although admitted that the total could be higher as tree cover could mask the real extent of the damage.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, has not yet commented on the violence committed by the military.
Photos and videos of scorched villages, plumes of smoke rising up into the sky and bloodied or blackened corpses circulated on Twitter. Nay San Lwin, an activist for the Rohingya people, posted videos of the remains of buildings and photos of huddled groups of displaced Rohingya.
We were able to speak to our Observer Sabit in the region, who was forced to flee his village, Nga Khu Ya, when the military came. He is currently in Bangladesh and on the run from the military.
“My house has not been burnt down yet; I am 100 percent sure that sooner or later it will happen” Sabit R.
Even though many Rohingya regardless of age are being killed or burnt, I really didn’t want to leave my motherland because if I did, I would have to leave my property worth millions of kyats and my identity. But things got so bad I had to reluctantly leave. My mother is still there and she is alone.
The Ngakura’s BGP [Border Guard Police] outpost is next to our village, and it’s from there that the soldiers and BGP come and raid our villages, loot properties and burn the dwellings.
Though my house has not been burnt down yet, I am 100 percent sure that sooner or later it will happen, and I can say that those who are still there alive will be killed or arrested for no reason. We had to leave but were in intense fear about getting across the border, where we might be robbed on the way or shot dead by security forces and the navy, who are patrolling 24/7.
In my village four people drowned while escaping from an army raid… Most of the dead bodies shot by army personnel were taken by the army or remain under intense security – that’s why we often don’t get to see dead bodies.
Sabit is currently hiding in a small hut with a family member in the Barbandan district of Bangladesh. He sent us a picture of the inside of the hut.
He is safe from the Burmese army, but as he has illegally entered Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi authorities could decide to deport him back to Burma, along with hundreds of other Rohingya refugees seeking safety from persecution.