Thousands flee Myanmar violence

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Myanmar’s government said it has evacuated at least 4,000 non-Muslim villagers amid ongoing clashes in northwestern Rakhine state, as thousands more Rohingya Muslims sought to flee across the border to Bangladesh on Sunday.
The death toll from the violence that erupted on Friday with coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents has climbed to 104, the vast majority militants, plus 12 members of security forces and several civilians, according to a tally based on official releases.
The government said it was investigating whether members of international aid groups had been involved in an alleged siege by the insurgents of a village in Rakhine.
The United Nations had pulled out non-essential staff from the area, said a spokesman.
Bracing for more violence, thousands of Rohingya — mostly women and children — attempted to forge the Naf River separating Myanmar and Bangladesh and the land border. Reporters at the border heard gunfire from the Myanmar side, which triggered a rush of Rohingya towards the no man’s land between the countries.
“Please save us,” 61-year-old Amir Hossain said near the Bangladeshi village of Gumdhum. “We want to stay here or else we’ll get killed.”
Around 2,000 people have been able to cross into Bangladesh since Friday, according to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in the makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered in the region since last October, when a similar but much smaller Rohingya attack prompted a brutal military operation dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses.
The treatment of approximately 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar has emerged as the biggest challenge for national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has condemned the raids in which insurgents wielding guns, sticks and homemade bombs assaulted 30 police stations and an army base.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been accused by some Western critics of not speaking out for the long-persecuted minority.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, said late on Saturday that 4,000 “ethnic villagers” who had fled their villages had been evacuated, referring to non-Muslim residents of the area.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, reported several clashes involving hundreds of Rohingya insurgents across northern Rakhine state on Sunday.
“The Tatmadaw column going to Nanthataung Village for operation also confronted about 800 Bengali terrorists at 9 am today. They are still fighting there,” the army said in a statement.
The term “Bengali” is seen as derogatory by many Rohingya as it implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many can trace family in Myanmar for generations.
The government said it was investigating whether international non-government organisation staff were involved when militants surrounded and blockaded a village in August.
A local reporter in the town of Buthidaung said he had seen nearly 100 staff of foreign aid agencies leave the town in speedboats following that statement.
The government also re-posted photographs of high energy biscuits with the logo of the World Food Programme on it which it said had been found at a “terrorist camp” in August.
“In light of the situation on the ground, the UN in Myanmar has decided to temporarily relocate non-critical staff out of Maungdaw,” the UN said referring to another major town in northern Rakhine, without giving more detail.
The Rohingya have for years endured apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar — they are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their movements. Many Myanmar Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, criticised the government for not moving “quickly or decisively enough” to remedy policy failures that were leading some Muslims to take up violence. — Reuters