Myanmar security forces fired mortars and machine at thousands of Rohingya attempting to flee into Bangladesh from Rakhine state on Saturday, and hundreds of government staff and ethnic Rakhine residents were being moved out after a major upsurge in violence sparked panic in the troubled region.
Tension and fear were running high after 96 people — alleged insurgents and 12 security personnel — were killed on Friday in attacks on about 30 police posts. The attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group came the day after the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State — led by former UN chief Kofi Annan — announced its final recommendations on how to ease tensions in the troubled region.
The clashes continued into Saturday with reports of fresh gunfire in northern Rakhine state and at least one further attack. A number of Rohingya properties were set alight, with the Muslim minority residents blaming security forces, and a government statement saying Rohingya insurgents had burnt down their own community's property.
Those who managed to reach the Bangladeshi border were still far from safe as officials refused to let them pass. Although some slipped through - some by swmming across the Naf river but thousands of mainly women and children were left stranded on the so-called zero-line border zone..
"They have fired on civilians, mostly women and children, hiding in the hills near the zero line," Border Guard Bangladesh's (BGB) station chief Manzurul Hassan Khan confirmed. "They fired machine guns and mortar shells suddenly, targeting the civilians. They have not consulted with the BGB."
Following Friday’s attacks, the de facto leader of the civilian-led government, Aung San Suu Ky, said the assaults had been timed to coincide with the Annan report — a risk the government was aware of — and condemned the Muslim insurgents as “terrorists.”
“It is clear that [these] attacks are a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine State. We must not allow our work to be derailed by the violent actions of extremists,” she said.
However the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), which claimed the attacks, said on Twitter that they were responding to recent raids, killings and looting of Rohingya communities by security forces.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a human rights organisation, said people were very frightened and expecting "extreme reprisals" by the authorities against Rohingya civilians.
“Women and children especially have been fleeing into Bangladesh,” she said.
Read more : What hope now for the Rohingya in Myanmar?
The Arsa group emerged in October last year under the name Harakah Al Yaqeen — when it carried out a smaller number of similar attacks on border security posts. That prompted a wave of brutal reprisals against Rohingya civilians, allegedly including rape, murder and arson by security forces, which the United Nations said was possible ethnic cleansing and likely amounted to crimes against humanity.
The Myanmar government has so far refused to co-operate with a UN fact-finding mission into the allegations or give visas to UN investigators.
An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya live in Rakhine. Most are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their movements. Violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in 2012 killed more than 200 people and displaced about 140,000, mainly Rohingya.
The UN estimates that 87,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh since authorities launched their clearance operations last October, but they are no more welcome there than in Myanmar. Tens of thousands of refugees live in squalid conditions in the Cox's Bazaar area of Bangladesh.
Reports emerging on Saturday claimed that some of those involved in the latest violence had received training in Bangladesh — an allegation backed up by the Burma Human Rights Network, a rights advocacy organisation, which said, "It has been relayed to BHRN that many of the refugees who fled last years fighting between Arsa and the Burmese army were recruited and trained since winter of last year.”
Staff from international organisations based in Rakhine said it was unlikely the release of the Annan report had played a significant role in provoking the violence. Sources on the ground had reported increased communal tensions since the military ramped up troop numbers in the state earlier this month. And the day before the attacks, reports emerged of mass arrests and brutality against Rohingya villagers in Rathedaung township, where hundreds of Rohingya had been blockaded by their Rakhine neighbours for the previous three weeks.
However the co-ordinated nature of the attacks suggested planning for an assault had already been under way.
Mr Annan led international condemnation of the attacks, saying he was “gravely concerned". Amnesty International and others called on both sides to show “utmost restraint” to ensure civilians were not harmed.
However, international observers have also expressed concerns about the language and nature of statements by the government regarding the incidents, which sources in Rakhine say are fuelling hate against the wider Rohingya civilian community and other Muslim populations. Images on government websites showed graphic pictures of some of those killed in the attacks and official statements referred to the attackers as “extremist Bengali terrorists”.
The term Bengali is used as a pejorative for the Rohingya, to imply they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Under Aung San Suu Kyi the government has generally avoided either name, generally using the term "Muslims from Rakhine".