Myanmar’s neighbors reacted with growing concern Wednesday as the International Organization of Migration (IOM) said that more than 18,000 Rohingya Muslims had fled their homes within the past week after a spate of violence erupted in Rakhine state.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called on the United States to pressure Myanmar into stopping the influx of Rohingya into her country’s southeastern region from Rakhine, which is just across the border.
Hasina had just met in the Bangladeshi capital with Alice Wells, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs.
“The prime minister told [Wells] that Bangladesh has given shelter to them on humanitarian grounds, but it’s now a big problem for us,” Ihsanul Karim, Hasina’s press secretary, told reporters.
The exodus along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border started after Rohingya insurgents launched coordinated attacks on 30 police outposts and an army base in the Myanmar townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung on Friday.
Officials said the attacks killed more than 100 people, including dozens of insurgents, and provoked new clashes as the government stepped up efforts to stop the chaos.
In Jakarta on Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi urged Myanmar to curb civilian casualties and prodded Bangladesh to accept fleeing refugees.
The top diplomat of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation told a news conference that she planned to travel to Myanmar soon to witness conditions among Rohingya communities in Rakhine state, according to Merdeka, an Indonesian media outlet.
A day earlier, Retno contacted Bangladesh’s foreign minister and also spoke with Myanmar National Security Adviser Thaung Tun to discuss “the disproportionate use of force by Myanmar security forces in Rakhine state,” according to Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Marsudi said she talked to the official over the phone and asked Myanmar to “avoid civilian casualties amid the violence” and to provide protection to the Rohingya community.
“This security protection is a humanitarian concern; it has to include the people of Rakhine state,” Marsudi said.
Also on Tuesday, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha met with Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing in Bangkok and said his government was prepared to accept displaced people fleeing the conflict.
“Thai Ministry of Defense and security units are preparing to receive displaced people, and have given security forces a migration plan if the fighting escalates,” Prayuth said.
He said Thailand would be willing to prepare shelters for the Rohingya and then send them back when the security situation had stabilized.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, police said that more than 100 people were arrested Wednesday after about 1,000 ethnic Rohingya demonstrated near a major road in Kuala Lumpur and demanded an end to the violence in Myanmar. A smaller protest was also held outside the Myanmar Embassy.
One protester doused himself with gasoline and attempted to set himself on fire before he was stopped by the police, according to Channel News Asia, which showed a picture of the man who appeared to be drenched.
Malaysia, a majority Sunni Islam nation, hosts almost 60,000 Rohingya refugees who form part of a large immigrant labor force doing low-skilled jobs, according to the United Nations.
Since the fresh cycle of violence began in Rakhine on Aug. 24, more than 18,000 Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh, Sanjukta Sahany, chief of IOM's office in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district – which is home to Rohingya refugee camps – told a news conference Wednesday. Many of the refugees had bullet and burn injuries, Sahany said.
“They are in a very, very desperate condition,” Sahany said. “People are traumatized, which is quite visible.”
The Bangladesh border guard has sent back 1,500 Rohingya to Myanmar during the past six days, officials said. On Wednesday morning, Bangladeshi police said they had recovered the bodies of three children and three women from a river
Accusations of atrocities
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgency group that claims it is strictly homegrown and not backed by foreign militants, has taken responsibility for the attacks on the Myanmar police posts. It claims to be fighting for the rights of an estimated 1.1 million poverty-stricken Rohingya, who have no citizenship rights, in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Myanmar has declared ARSA a terrorist group, though the office of State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi only yesterday began calling the insurgents "extremist ARSA terrorists" on its official Facebook page after previously referring to them as "Bengali" terrorists, using a derogatory word for Rohingya, who are deemed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
As recently as yesterday, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, Myanmar’s minister for home affairs, repeated the government’s long-held stance that Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar, during a briefing in Yangon attended by defense ministry officials and National Security Adviser Thaung Tun.
“There is no Rohingya among our ethnic groups," he said. "[What] we have seen are the Bengalis in this region who have tried to destroy Myanmar’s rule of law.”
In a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday, a man identifying himself as ARSA chief Ataullah Abu Ammar Junini (also known as Ata Ullah), according to the English subtitles, accused Myanmar forces of committing atrocities and using mortars and rocket launchers on Rohingya civilians.
“You know that they are burning down Rohingya houses and villages. There are dead bodies on the roads, everywhere and all over,” said Ullah, who was flanked in the video footage by two youthful-looking masked men clutching AK-47 rifles.
Ullah, whose face was uncovered, challenged the Myanmar forces: “If you want to wage war, then fight with those youth who are fighting for their rights in self-defense.”
On Tuesday, a New York-based rights group said it had accessed satellite data that showed widespread fires burning in at least 10 areas in Rakhine state.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, should grant access to independent monitors to determine the sources of fires and assess allegations of human rights violations, according to a statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“This new satellite data should cause concern and prompt action by donors and UN agencies to urge the Burmese government to reveal the extent of ongoing destruction in Rakhine State,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “Shuffling all the blame on insurgents doesn’t spare the Burmese government from its international obligations to stop abuses and investigate alleged violations.”
HRW said the burnings followed a buildup of military forces and the deployment of the 33rd Light Infantry Battalion in northern Rakhine, the region that has seen simmering tensions between its Buddhist and predominantly Muslim populations since communal violence broke out in 2012.
Both the Myanmar military and ARSA insurgents have traded accusations of committing abuses.
Some 200 civil society organizations (CSOs) in Myanmar had called for an end to the violence in a statement on Monday, expressing concern for affected communities in northern Rakhine state.
The CSOs called on the government to "swiftly grant unimpeded access for independent news agencies and provide security to reporters" so that citizens of Myanmar and the international community "receive credible news and updates in real time about the situation of local communities" to avoid the risk of the conflict spreading to other areas.
The statement also urged the government to "protect the safety, dignity and basic human rights of all the civilians with equity and fairness and be accountable in accord with international human rights and humanitarian law and standards without any exception."
But others in Myanmar say the government is not handling the conflict forcefully enough.
On Wednesday, firebrand monk Wirathu of the ultranationalist Buddhist monk group Ma Ba Tha, called on the government to impose martial law in northern Rakhine state and suggested Aung San Suu Kyi's government was bowing to international concerns by not taking a harder stance in the region, without mentioning the leader by name.
“It's not only a fear of bullets and gunfire ... it's also a fear of international pressure,” the firebrand monk told a rally of supporters in Yangon.
“We had police outposts and they attacked them. But now we have military troops in Rakhine state and all of [the insurgents] are running away. So, you should realize that until martial law is imposed, people in [northern Rakhine] will be killed by Bengalis.”
‘We could have another Cambodia’
As officials across Southeast Asia grappled with a looming humanitarian crisis, parliamentarians from across the region urged governments to take immediate action to protect civilians in Rakhine.
“This is the time to act, or we could have another Cambodia in our backyard,” said Malaysian legislator Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), referring to atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.
“It’s time for ASEAN member countries to shelve the archaic non-interference policy and warn Myanmar to stop the killings,” Santiago said.
Santiago's call for action came a day after Britain's U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft asked the U.N. Security Council to meet to "address long-term issues in Rakhine, urge restraint by all parties," in a post on Twitter.
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