Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: Bangladesh border guards on Monday moved to push back thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing the worst violence in Myanmar in five years, with 104 people killed and the United Nations aid groups forced to pull out some staff.
The flight of large numbers of Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist civilians from the northern part of Myanmar’s Rakhine state was triggered by coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents, wielding sticks, knives and crude bombs, on 30 police posts and an army base on Friday.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since October, when a similar but much smaller series of Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of human rights abuses.
The treatment of about 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya in mainly Buddhist Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has condemned the attacks and commended the security forces.
The Nobel laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out on behalf of the long-persecuted minority, and also of defending the army’s sweep after the October attacks.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar and classified as illegal immigrants, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries. They are marginalized and occasionally subjected to communal violence.
Bangladesh regards them as illegal migrants from Myanmar and has said it will not allow any refugees in.
Nevertheless, thousands of Rohingya – mostly women and children – fleeing the violence sought to ford the Naf river separating Myanmar and Bangladesh and cross the land border.
On Monday, Bangladesh border guards shouted “move, move” to push back refugees stranded in no man’s land near the Bangladeshi village of Gumdhum. Over the weekend, Rohingya were rushing to Gumdhum after gun shots rang out on the Myanmar side.
“How could we go back there just to get killed?” asked Rohingya Mujibur Raham standing on the border.
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar since the early 1990s and there are now about 400,000 in Bangladesh. Some of them, in the Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar, said police had threatened them with arrest if they helped new arrivals.
Nevertheless, an estimated 3,000 people have crossed into Bangladesh in the past few days, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Aid groups are scrambling to help.
“We are accommodating new people in our current programme,” said a senior official from the group Action Against Hunger who said the group was feeding about 500 new refugees.
The UNHCR said it was helping the new refugees with dry food and medical assistance.
In Myanmar, the United Nations and international aid agencies withdrew some staff from the area, after the government said it was investigating whether members of aid groups had been involved in the siege by the insurgents of a village in August.
The government has provided security to aid workers, but “with this kind of situation, no one can fully guarantee safety”, said Nyi Pu, chief minister of Rakhine state.
“If they want to stay, we will give security as best as we can. If they don’t want to stay, due to their safety concerns, and want to leave, we told them that we will help them,” he said.
The military reported several clashes over the weekend involving hundreds of Rohingya insurgents across northern Rakhine state.
“Extremists blew out improvised bombs, set fire to villages and attacked the police outposts in Maungtaw,” the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar daily said on Monday, referring to a town.
The government reported at least 104 deaths, the majority militants, plus 12 members of the security forces and several civilians.
The government urged Rohingya civilians to cooperate with security forces, assuring those with without ties to the insurgents they would not be affected.
An Islamist group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), claimed responsibility for the Friday attacks. It was also behind the violence in October. The government has declared it a terrorist organisation.
The group has said in statements is has to fight to protect the rights of Rohingya.
North Rakhine state is populated mostly by Rohingya Muslims. Thousands of non-Muslim villagers were being evacuated to larger towns, monasteries and police stations, the government said.
Many were arming themselves with knives and sticks for fear of insurgent attacks.
“We are afraid of swords because they attack people with swords,” said Than Aye, a 65-year-old villager fleeing the township of Buthidaung for Sittwe, the state capital.
“That’s why we are fleeing from there, as we are afraid of them. I haven’t slept well at night.”