NEARLY half of Myanmar’s 1 million Rohingya are now feared to have been forced from their homes during military onslaughts over the past year, observers have warned after the UN refugee agency revealed 270,000 had fled into Bangladesh in just the past two weeks alone.
The warning from the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Saturday followed Friday’s revelation by the UN that the number of Rohingya who had reached Bangladesh since August 25 was far higher than previously thought. The exodus began after an attack by Rohingya insurgents in northern Rakhine state prompted a large-scale military response by the Myanmar military
There were already tens of thousands of Rohingya in Bangladesh, some of them in camps, before the 270,000 recent arrivals turned up. Tens of thousands more are believed to be in hiding or still en route to the border. Satellite evidence and military reports suggest large scale arson attacks have destroyed thousands of properties
The ICG said: “Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes."
Most of those who have fled are reported to be women and children. The scale of the exodus is likely to provoke further allegations that the Rohingya are victims of ethnic cleansing, observers warned.
“This is changing the whole demographic of Rakhine,” one expert on refugees told The National.
Before the launch of military “clearance operations” in Rakhine in the wake of last October's attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts, an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State. They accounted for around one third of the total population, the majority of the rest being ethnic-Rakhine Buddhists.
According to UN sources the majority of those who have left in the last two weeks are coming from the predominantly Muslim township of Maungdaw. which is closest to the Bangladesh border. Maungdaw and Buthidaung township, also in the north of Rakhine state and predominantly Muslim, have both witnessed a great deal of violence. Rathedaung, another township slightly to the south, has also suffered violence, even though it is more mixed.
Human rights groups have also raised fears that those who do make it to the border are falling victim to landmines. Amnesty International on Saturday said it had confirmed Myanmar security forces had deliberately planted internationally-banned anti-personnel landmines along a narrow stretch of the north-western border of Rakhine State, leading to at least three civilians — including two children — being seriously injured and one man reportedly killed.
"This is another low in what is already a horrific situation in Rakhine State. The Myanmar military's callous use of inherently indiscriminate and deadly weapons at highly trafficked paths around the border is putting the lives of ordinary people at enormous risk," said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response Director, who is currently near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Amnesty said the Myanmar Army is one of only a handful of state forces worldwide — along with North Korea and Syria — that still openly uses anti-personnel landmines, and called on the military to "immediately end this abhorrent practice. "
Bangladesh is reported to be enraged by the planting of landmines as it has an agreement with Myanmar that neither nation's security forces should enter the no-man's land between the two countries without each other’s permission.
Meanwhile Human Rights Watch on Saturday confirmed it had new satellite evidence that revealed large scale burnings had taken place in primarily Muslim urban areas — particularly Maungdaw town. The images suggest arson attacks have taken place in the area's main town as well as in rural villages in areas where the military say they are hunting insurgents.
According to HRW satellite photos taken on September 2 revealed 450 buildings destroyed by fire in Maungdaw town after satellite-based heat sensing technology indicated active fires in the area on August 28.
"The widespread destruction of urban areas in Maungdaw town suggests that Burmese security forces are not just attacking Rohingya Muslims in isolated villages," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Burmese government has an obligation to protect everyone in the country, but if safety cannot even be found in area capitals, then no place may be safe."
The Myanmar government claims Rohingya militants deliberately burnt down the homes of Rohingya and Hindu residents in the town, but provided no evidence said HRW. Mr Robertson stressed it was urgent that journalists and observers should be allowed in to the region to investigate what has been happening.
Myanmar authorities have consistently denied large scale atrocities have taken place — although both the military and the civilian government claim it is difficult for security forces to distinguish between civilians and insurgents.
An estimated 27,000 non-Muslim residents have also left their homes in Rakhine due to the violence — many fleeing to the state capital Sittwe. They have been receiving government support in Buddhist monasteries and schools.
While not mentioning them by the name, on Saturday it was announced via state media that the government is to establish three IDP camps in north, south and central Maungdaw — the first significant announcement that support is to be offered to Rohingya civilians affected by the crisis.
"Displaced people who are currently spread out will be able to receive humanitarian aid and medical care" distributed by local Red Cross workers, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Saturday.