Despite alleged arson attacks on Rohingya, Myanmar claims situation 'under control'

Bangladesh has turned back refugees, but thousands of Rohingya have still managed to make it across in recent days

Rohingya people cross the border fence to enter inside Bangladesh border, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
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Bangladesh was under mounting pressure on Monday not to turn back Rohingya refugees as thousands seek to flee across the border from Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, amid reports of arson attacks and as civilian casualties grow.

With fears an open gate policy would see an influx of hundreds of thousands seeking refuge across the border, Bangladesh has turned back refugees, but thousands of Rohingya have still managed to make it across in recent days.

"Bangladesh has an international rights obligation to permit these Rohingya refugees to seek safety in its territory, so Dhaka should order the opening of the border and let those fleeing Burma army and police attacks to enter,” said Phil Roberston of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. He urged Bangladesh to seek international support to provide food, medical and humanitarian care for the new arrivals.

Bangladeshi media on Monday reported that at least one refugee, who had arrived from Maungdaw township in Rakhine had died from bullet wounds in Chittagong Medical College Hospital on Sunday. Five others — including a 10-year-old child — were being treated for serious injuries.

According to the UN, over 5,000 Rohingya managed to enter Bangladesh since attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) on security posts in Rakhine on Friday sparked a major upturn in violence in the region. Sources say many of those turned back by Bangladeshi border security had returned another day and successfully crossed the border, or got in by another route.

The new arrivals faced “an urgent need for shelter, as well as food, water and health care”, the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) said on Monday.

Thousands more were still attempting to enter on Monday as reports emerged of arson attacks on Rohingya properties across northern Rakhine — fires which the Muslim minority blame on Myanmar security troops, and which the government blames on Arsa which it deems a terrorist organisation.

Despite claims of ongoing arson attacks and reports of people fleeing, the government said the situation was under control.
"We went to downtown Maungdaw and studied the situation. To tell you about the security, it seems to be under control," the Rakhine state chief minister Nyi Pu told local media on Monday.

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Fleeing civilians had come under fire from mortar shells and machine guns on Saturday from the Myanmar side, the AFP reported.

“Even being delayed or pushed back for 24 hours could put people into imminent danger,” said Matt Smith founder of Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights.

“This is an at-risk population,” said Mr Smith, whose organisation had been receiving reports from within northern Rakhine of arson attacks on Rohingya villages and the killing of civilian men, women and children, though the ongoing lockdown there makes these hard to verify.

“As of 27 August, an estimated 5,200 people were reported to have crossed the border into Cox’s Bazar, since 24 August, following violence in Myanmar," OCHA said on Monday. "Thousands more are believed to be gathered on the border, and have been appealing to the Bangladesh authorities to allow them to enter.”

Bangladesh border guards returned some people and cordoned some groups in areas inside the Bangladesh border, it said. "Other new arrivals reportedly have reached established makeshift settlements, camps or are staying with relatives. Communities are providing food and water to those confined at the border, and agencies are providing emergency food and health services to new arrivals.”

Bangladesh government sources say the unofficial policy is one of “closed doors, but open windows” — as there are many points along the more than 100km border which are easy to cross as they are not guarded.

One diplomat said it was “inevitable” that Bangladesh would end up taking in large numbers of Rohingya “otherwise they will die”. There were already around an estimated 400,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh before insurgent attacks in Rakhine last October sparked brutal reprisals by security forces that led to another 87,000 fleeing Myanmar.

The government evacuated thousands of non-Muslim residents from northern Rakhine over the weekend, fuelling fears it would allow security forces to ramp up reprisals against Rohingya communities, in a repeat of last October's large-scale deadly clearance operations. Panic over “terror attacks” is running high among ethnic Rakhine and others beyond the Rohingya population many of whom felt it safest to leave, according to sources.

“The fact they evacuated 4,000 non-Muslims and not a single Muslim is a red flag,” said Mr Smith.

“It appears the army has not changed its behaviour.”

Chris Lewa, director of rights group Arakan Project also expressed concerns that the events were following a similar pattern to last October.

“First they burn, then they shoot, then it is more organised and they go and arrest people,” she said adding she was receiving reports of properties ablaze in many different parts of the region.

“It’s burning, burning, people fleeing,” she said adding she had just received reports that 14 Rohingya in one village had been killed, but as with all allegations from the cut-off area, these deaths and arson allegation were difficult to verify.

Diplomatic relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh have reached a new low during the current crisis. The Bangladesh government is furious that Myanmar authorities are officially referring to Arsa and other Rohingyas involved in the fighting as “extremist Bengali terrorists”.

One government source said the term meant Myanmar was implying Bangladesh was a terrorist country, “this is a new thing and the government is very unhappy about it,” the source said.