Rock Ronald Rozario and Stephan Uttom, Dhaka and John Zaw, Mandalay
Updated: September 25, 2017 11:01 AM GMT
An eight-year-old Rohingya was wounded during 'clearance operations' by Myanmar security forces in northern Rakhine State. Muhammad is now one of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh. (ucanews.com photo)
A day after Myanmar's de-factor leader Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence on the military crackdown against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State triggered Asia's biggest humanitarian crisis since Cambodia's Pol Pot regime, smoke could again be seen billowing from burning houses in Myanmar from refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, refuted claims by Suu Kyi that there had been "no violence or clearance operations" since the Sept. 5 cessation of operations, as reported by her network.
"On Sept. 20 villages north of Maungdaw town were torched," Lewa told ucanews.com.
The situation in northern Rakhine remains tense and the stranded Rohingya live in fear amid tight security, she said.
"Suu Kyi should look at newspapers, TV and satellite images and go to Rakhine State and Bangladesh to get [an idea of] the ground situation," said Lewa.
The situation is worse than 1991-92, when the Rohingya resorted to a large-scale exodus to Bangladesh following a deadly persecution under the former junta that still controls the military, she noted.
"This is the worst situation for the Rohingya community as most houses were burned down and they have nowhere to live even if they go back to Rakhine," Lewa said.
Shamsul Alam, 44, took a three-day perilous journey with his family by foot and boat to reach Bangladesh after violence flared in Maungdaw Township on Aug. 25.
Alam told ucanews.com that Myanmar soldiers and a Buddhist vigilante group deceived them and killed 11 out of 18 members of his extended family.
"We wanted to flee immediately, but soldiers and Moghs (Rakhine Buddhists) assured us of our safety and said we didn't have to flee. They came back at night with soldiers firing indiscriminately, locking houses and then setting alight the whole village. Eleven people including my elderly grandmother couldn't get out and perished in the fire," said Alam.
The trails used by the Rohingya leading to Bangladesh border are full of "solid evidence" that Suu Kyi probably sought, he said.
"We found village after village destroyed by fire, bodies of people lying here and there," recalled Alam who is now in Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. "We saw the military spraying bullets at young Rohingya men and if they were not dead then slaughtering them with machetes, and picking up young and pretty women for rape," he said.
Alam regretted Suu Kyi's stance on what the world has already recognized.
"She knows everything but won't speak up because she believes in what the military and Moghs say. Once we had great hope in Suu Kyi but she has failed us. Her support for the military shows she doesn't have any sympathy for the Rohingya," he added.
Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers her national address in Naypyidaw on Sept. 19. In her speech, Suu Kyi condemned rights violations and said 'verified' refugees could return to Myanmar. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Unafraid of 'international scrutiny'
Under intense global pressure, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, in a much-anticipated speech on Sept. 19 said her government condemns "all human rights violations and unlawful violence" in Rakhine and expressed commitment "to the restoration of peace, stability, and rule of law throughout the state."
The Myanmar government has admitted that 1,000 mostly civilian Rohingya have been killed and left hundreds of houses — at up to 50 percent of Rohingya villages burned in Suu Kyi's own reckoning — and at least 420,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh, denting her claim that the great majority of Muslims in Rakhine State, who numbered 1.2 million in the last census have not joined the exodus.
Yet, Suu Kyi said Myanmar was not afraid of "international scrutiny" and that actions would be taken after investigating "solid evidence" over "allegations and counter-allegations" regarding the violence.
However, solid evidence including satellite images showing the destruction of villages are aplenty.
Khadija Begum, 25, fled to Cox's Bazar from Buthidaung nearly two weeks ago with her three sons. She says the military killed her husband and set their house alight.
"I was coming back from a nearby market when soldiers came to our village shooting everyone on the way. Hours later they left and set every house in the village on fire," said Khadija. "I rushed to my house and found my husband was killed with a gunshot wound to the chest," she said.
"I hurried to save my children, so I couldn't bury him. This pain will haunt me forever."
With her three sons, she fled to Bangladesh. Along the way, she was separated from her parents and five other family members. She has not seen them since.
Harez Taiyub, 34, a Rohingya community leader, who moved to Leda refugee camp in Cox's Bazar back in 1992, said Suu Kyi's statement is "confusing and contradictory."
A measure of the evidence is the massive aid effort now underway. The Bangladesh government are scrambling to tackle the growing humanitarian crisis triggered by the Rohingya influx and aid groups have scaled up their efforts.
The United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR), supported by local and foreign donations, have been distributing food, clothes, materials for shelter, water and sanitation facilities to refugees.
To date, UNHCR has provided tarpaulin tents to 600 refugee families, and the same is on the cards for up to 150,000 refugees to be put in a new camp being erected on 2,000-acres of government land in Cox's Bazar.
The agency is also assisting the government in the biometric registration of refugees which started Sept. 2. An estimated 1,000 refugees are now being registered daily.
Medical charity Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), that operates in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, said that villages and houses have been burned down in Rakhine including two out of four MSF clinics.
Between Aug. 25 — Sept. 12, MSF treated 9,290 patients. Among them were 2,794 emergency cases including 147 gunshot injury cases and 16 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
As Some of the Rohingya who have made the made the exodus from Rakhine State to Bangladesh. (ucanews.com)
While Rakhine remains inaccessible to journalists, observers and aid workers, it is difficult to verify what Suu Kyi described as "allegations and counter-allegations."
However, there is a cache of evidence from both Rohingya refugees who fled Bangladesh and rights watchdogs who have detailed massive violence and destruction of Rohingya villages.
With evidence of satellite images, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that 214 Muslim villages in northern Rakhine have been destroyed by fire. Myanmar has alleged Rohingya militants and villagers burned their own houses.
In a report on Sept. 7, Jonathan Head, BBC Southeast Asia correspondent who visited Rakhine on a state-sponsored media trip, said many villages were still burning.
"We were returning from a visit to the town of Al Le Than Kyaw, south of Maungdaw, which is still smoking, suggesting houses have been recently set alight," Head wrote.
The police said it was the Muslim inhabitants who burned their own homes, although most fled after militants from the Arakan Rakhine Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked the police posts, he said.
"We saw at least three columns of smoke in the distance to the north, and heard automatic weapons fire," he added.
Salin, a Rohingya who remains in Maungdaw Township, said most of the villages there have already been burned.
He said that in nearby Rathedaung Township only five out of 24 villages escaped being set alight and three camps for the internally displaced — where hundreds of Rohingyas lived following violence in 2012 — were also burned, forcing residents to flee to Bangladesh.
Salin's parents-in law and relatives fled from a village in Maungdaw on Sept. 1 because nearby houses were burnt down.
"We have already decided to flee if the situation worsens. We are living in fear and facing difficulty for daily survival as food prices are high," Salin told ucanews.com.
In Cox's Bazar, on the Bangladesh side of the Naf River that separates it from northern Rakhine, there are as many stories — as much evidence as Suu Kyi would like — as there are refugees.