Graphic accounts of beheaded Rohingya children, civilians burnt alive, and hundreds killed by security forces have emerged in Myanmar as eye witnesses and new satellite evidence reveal the extent of the ongoing crisis in Rakhine state.
The World Food Programme on Saturday suspended food aid to Rakhine, where over 100,000 Rohingya have been confined in camps and reliant on aid since communal violence in 2012.
The move comes after the government repeatedly highlighted allegations that WFP rations were being used to support the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), prompting a massive backlash against the organisation by the wider Myanmar public.
The WFP said the aid deliveries had been suspended because of "insecurity" affecting an estimated 250,000 internally displaced people and other vulnerable populations in the state.
Northern Rakhine has been beset by violence and under lockdown since the Arsa launched deadly attacks on security posts on August 25, making it difficult to confirm reports and online allegations of killings and widespread abuses of civilians by both security forces and Arsa.
Witnesses described a large-scale attack on one particular Rohingya village — Chat Pyin in Rathedaung township — reportedly carried out by Myanmar soldiers and local ethnic Rakhine residents of a neighbouring community on August 27 that left an estimated 200 people dead, according to South East Asian human rights organisation Fortify Rights on Friday.
Villagers said soldiers shot and killed several residents, while people from a neighbouring non-Muslim village armed with swords and knives attacked — and in some cases beheaded — Rohingya residents, including children. Soldiers reportedly arrested a large group of Rohingya men, marched them into a nearby bamboo hut, and set it on fire, burning them to death.
"My brother was killed — [Myanmar Army soldiers] burnt him with the group,” Fortify Rights quoted 41-year-old Abdul Rahman of Chut Pyin as saying.
“We found [my other family members] in the fields. They had marks on their bodies from bullets and some had cuts. My two nephews, their heads were off. One was six years old and the other was nine years old. My sister-in-law was shot with a gun.”
Chut Pyin residents told the rights group that soldiers and armed residents burnt every house in the village and that from an estimated population of 1,400, only 596 survivors had been accounted for since the reported attacks.
A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the latest allegations but previously told The National the military were aware of the need to protect "innocent Muslims", and found it "very challenging" to distinguish between them and the insurgents.
In addition to the allegations against the military, Rohingya villagers in other parts of Rakhine also told Fortify that Arsa militants were allowing women and children to flee, but refusing to let men leave the Maungdaw township, threatening to kill those who tried to escape into Bangladesh.
One Rohingya man from the village of Kha Maung Seik village in northern Maungdaw said he and a large group of displaced civilians were detained by Arsa militants for two hours. “They didn’t beat us but they beat our guide who was showing us the way. They said we all had to go back and fight against the government,” he said.
Before the August 25 attacks, Arsa — since declared a terrorist group by the Myanmar government — were said to have killed dozens of Rohingya civilians suspected of being government informants.
On Friday, the Myanmar military reported that some 400 people — around 370 Rohingya "insurgents", 13 security forces, two government officials and 14 civilians — had died in the violence since August 25.
Fears were growing that the real death toll is likely to be much higher.
“The situation is dire,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “Mass atrocity crimes are continuing. The civilian government and military need to do everything in their power to immediately prevent more attacks.”
New satellite imagery of Rakhine showed hundreds of buildings burnt, including 700 in a single village, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.
Imagery from the Rohingya Muslim village of Chein Khar Li in Rathedaung township recorded on August 31 showed near total destruction of the village, with 99 per cent of the village destroyed.
“This new satellite imagery shows the total destruction of a Muslim village, and prompts serious concerns that the level of devastation in northern Rakhine state may be far worse than originally thought,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet this is only one of 17 sites that we’ve located where burnings have taken place. Independent monitors are needed on the ground to urgently uncover what’s going on.”
The government said on Saturday that over 2,600 houses had been burned down last week in Rohingya-majority areas in the north-west of the country.
Rohingya villagers blame the arson attacks on Myanmar security while the government insists Rohingya are burning down their own homes.
Human Rights Watch said the scale and pattern of the fires strongly indicate they had been started deliberately, particularly given current monsoon weather conditions which would make it difficult for accidental fires to spread on such a scale. They also pointed to an ethnic Rakhine village next to the Rohingya Chein Khar Li settlement which had not been burnt.
However ethnic-Rakhine and other non-Muslims have also reported arson attacks on their villages by Rohingya militants.
The reports that killings were carried out by ethnic-Rakhine villagers alongside soldiers, further raises fears that the current violence involving the Myanmar military and Arsa is descending into inter-communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the wider Rohingya Muslim population. Other non-Muslim ethnic minority civilians have also reportedly been killed by Arsa militants.
Rathedaung township had seen increasing inter-communal tensions in the weeks before the recent attacks, and a build-up of military troops in the area following killings of Muslim and non-Muslim civilians blamed on Arsa.
Two days before Arsa struck security posts, it emerged that hundreds of Muslim Rohingya in the township’s Zay Di Pyin village had been blocked by their Buddhist ethnic-Rakhine neighbours from going to work or fetching food and water for three weeks preceding the attacks.
With the August 25 assaults sparking increasingly inflammatory rhetoric on all sides, the EU last week warned that inter-communal violence could also spread to other parts of the state.