ucanews.com reporter, MyanmarUpdated: December 26, 2016 04:36 AM GMT
Deen Mohammad and his wife Roshida, whose two elder sons were taken by the Myanmar military, with their younger children after their escape from Myanmar, in a refugee camp in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox's Bazar on Nov. 24. (Photo by AFP)
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Rakhine State in western Myanmar is in crisis rights groups say as thousands of largely stateless Rohingya Muslims attempt to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, while others are agitating for dangerous boat trips to Malaysia amid reports of villages being razed and gang rapes by Myanmar's military.
At least 5,000 Rohingya have fled the religiously and ethnically divided state where the military has operated counter-insurgency operations since Oct. 9 that has left more than 100 people dead and more than 400 arrested.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group on Rohingya rights, said that at least 5,000 people fled to Bangladesh during Nov. 14-20 period.
"About 1,500 are stranded on a disputed island between Myanmar and Bangladesh in the middle of the Naf River without any food or water," Lewa told ucanews.com.
The United Nations said that they couldn't verify the numbers of Rohingya refugees, as they have no access to those areas.
"We have been appealing for access in order to assess and help meet the need for shelter, food and medical attention," Vivian Tan, spokesperson of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told ucanews.com.
For many Rohingya, reaching the border does not mean safe arrival.
Bangladesh has hardened its stance on keeping its border closed and has tried to push refugees back as the country struggles to cope with the exodus.
"The Bangladeshi government must not add to the suffering of Rohingya. They should be recognized and protected as refugees fleeing persecution, not punished for who they are," Champa Patel, South Asia director of Amnesty International said in a statement on Nov. 24.
A 40-year-old Rohingya woman told the London-based rights group that she had fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar army killed her husband and one of her sons. She said she was not able to find shelter in a camp for herself and her two young children.
"We are sleeping outside in the mud," she said. " My son is 2- years-old and is crying all the time, he is very cold in the mornings. Still, compared to Myanmar, Bangladesh seems like heaven to me."
The UN estimates more than 30,000 people, mostly stateless Rohingya, have been displaced in Rakhine and over 70,000 were in immediate need of food as international humanitarian access has been cut off for more than 40 days.
John McKissick, head of the UNHCR in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox's Bazar, earlier described the situation as "ethnic cleansing" with the civilian government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi appearing helpless — or unwilling — to step in and deal with the situation.
Myanmar's military was "killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river," McKissick told the BBC.
"It's very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar," he said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has released new satellite images that indicates more than 1,200 homes have been razed in Rohingya villages in the past six weeks.
Myanmar has denied their security forces in Rakhine have committed any human rights abuses and claimed that they have been carrying out clearance operations targeting suspected militants.
Protests condemning the persecution of Rohingya Muslims were held in Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh last week.
Hundreds of people took to the streets to denounce the silence of Myanmar's state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and called on Bangladesh to keep its border open according to media reports.
Suu Kyi, who has long been criticized for her silence on the persecution of the Rohingya and other Muslims, established a commission — led by former U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan — to investigate the mounting problems in the state but since then things have only worsened.
Risky boat journeys
Aung Win, a Rohingya Muslim leader in Sittwe township, said that people in the camps are now feeling that Suu Kyi can't help them so they are planning to leave Rakhine.
"For most people, taking a risky boat journey and going to Malaysia is better than staying in the camps with deteriorating conditions," Aung Win told ucanews.com.
Khin Mg Myint, a Rohingya Muslim from a camp for internally displaced persons near Sittwe, hasn't heard of any boats leaving in the area.
"There is tight security by Myanmar's navy out at the sea so it might be a hindrance for people trying to leave Rakhine by boat," Khin Mg Myint told ucanews.com.
Impoverished Rakhine is home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya who are referred as "Bengalis" by most people in Myanmar who see them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
More than 150,000 Rohingya are interned in squalid camps and restricted in their movement, healthcare and education since sectarian violence engulfed the region in 2012, which resulted in scores of deaths.
Thousands of Rohingya fled Rakhine after 2012 by taking dangerous voyages to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, until Thai authorities cracked down on smuggler networks in May 2015.
Published Nov. 28, 2016