BANGKOK — Violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state has driven thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims fleeing toward Bangladesh for safety, along with a smaller exodus of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
A majority of the country’s estimated 1 million Rohingya live in the northern part of Rakhine state, where Rohingya insurgents launched coordinated attacks last week against police posts, setting off allegedly brutal retaliation by government forces.
Human rights groups and advocates for the Rohingya say the army retaliated by burning down villages and shooting civilians. The government blames Rohingya insurgents for the violence, including the arson. The official death toll in the violence was 96 as of Sunday, and the actual number is likely to be higher.
An estimated 8,000-9,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh since the violence broke out last Thursday, with an unknown number still waiting to cross the border or hiding in mountainous or forested areas.
Most of the violence since last week seems to be directed at Rohingya villages, but Rakhine Buddhists, feeling unsafe after the upsurge in fighting, are moving south to the state’s capital, Sittwe, where Buddhists are a majority and have greater security.
On Tuesday morning, scores crammed a ferry out of the area and headed for Sittwe. Many sat inside the cabin, but others sat or lay on the deck, swathed in bandages, and recounted their own moments of terror and violence.
Among them were five policemen heading to Sittwe for hospital treatment of wounds they said they received in wild skirmishes with insurgents during attacks on their positions. One was seriously hurt and lay still under a blanket.
All their injuries, they said, came from machete blows or slashes.
Zwe Phyo Aung said he went to support outnumbered police colleagues at an outpost in Myin Hlut village and found himself facing a wave of attackers armed with swords and knives.
“I wasn’t afraid of them; all I was thinking was to eliminate them. I wanted to eliminate them any way I could. I was not scared or frightened.”
His friend, Thar Kyaw Sein, said he was in the same desperate fight, during which his weapon jammed.
“The reason I was wounded was, when I was shooting with my gun, it had a problem. As I was fixing it and got up to shoot again, one of the guys came at me with his machete. So I shot him dead,” he said.
Seventy-year-old San Khine Pyu could not count herself so fortunate. Her only son — a policeman with 22 years’ service — was killed.
“My son has died in the violence. As I am a Buddhist, I don’t want to blame anyone anymore,” she said.
A Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, took responsibility for last week’s attacks on more than 25 locations, saying they were in defense of Rohingya communities.
The Rohingya have long faced severe discrimination and were the targets of violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people — predominantly Rohingya — from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where most remain.
The government refuses to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate native ethnic minority. Most Rohingya are denied citizenship and its rights.
The raids last Thursday night were deadlier than an attack by the militants on three border posts last October that killed nine policemen and set off months of brutal counterinsurgency operations by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state. Human rights groups accused the army of carrying out massive human rights abuses, including killing, rape and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.
The army’s abuses fueled further resentment toward the government among the Rohingya. ARSA took advantage of the resentment by stepping up recruitment of members.
In Yangon, a government minister alleged Tuesday that employees of international aid groups with activities in northern Rakhine state have assisted the insurgents. Speaking to foreign diplomats, Home Affairs Minister Gen. Kyaw Swe said government agents had found that some staff members of aid groups were linked to the insurgents. He also charged that materials imported by some NGOs, such as iron pipes and fertilizer, have been used by insurgents to make bombs. He offered no evidence to support the charges.
The government issued a statement on Sunday accusing unnamed international aid group staff of assisting one attack, and circulated a photo showing energy biscuits donated by the U.N. World Food Program that it said were discovered in July at an insurgent camp. The photo was widely reposted on social media as alleged proof of complicity with the insurgents.
Under international pressure, the government has only grudgingly let foreign aid groups into northern Rakhine, where Rohingya are confined to camps for the displaced where they live in poor conditions and are unable to support themselves. Many Rakhine Buddhists, already scornful of the Rohingya, believe the aid groups devote a disproportionately large part of their resources to the Rohingya.
U.N. and NGO officials could not immediately be contacted for comment.