COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — About 1,000 ethnic Rohingya villagers from Myanmar forced their way Monday into Bangladesh after coming under fire from Myanmar soldiers, in fallout from violence unleashed last week when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
The Muslim villagers, who were seeking refuge from the ongoing violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, had been in a border no man’s land for two days. Bangladeshi border guards, who had provided them with food and water, on Monday sought to push them back to their own country.
A Bangladeshi local government representative, Jahangir Aziz, said that when Myanmar troops fired their guns, the crowd ran back and broke through a Bangladesh barricade and cordon of 300-400 guards. He said they then scattered, with at least some making it to unofficial camps for unregistered refugees.
Rohingya leaders and intelligence officials said 8,000-9,000 Rohingya have entered Bangladesh since the violence broke out last Thursday when Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar police posts.
Human rights groups and advocates for the Rohingya say the army retaliated by burning down villages and shooting civilians, forcing thousands to flee. The official death toll as of Sunday was 96 – most described by the government as “terrorists” – though the actual figure is likely to be higher.
The government blames Rohingya insurgents for the violence.
Both the government, in official statements, and its critics, in posts on social medias often accompanied by video clips, said there was widespread burning of buildings and even whole neighborhoods in Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine on Sunday.
“Extremist terrorists blew out improvised bombs, set fire the villages and attacked the police outposts in Region-2 of Maungtaw yesterday from the morning to afternoon,” said an English-language statement issued by the Information Ministry on Monday.
Arakan Times, an online news website serving the Rohingya community, said Myanmar troops and border guard police burned down 1,000 homes in actions beginning Saturday and continuing Monday.
Both sides’ claims were difficult to verify because the government denies most journalists access to the area.
A group of journalists who tried to drive to Maungdaw on Monday were turned back by police and soldiers, who said they were not authorized to let them through.
However, they did encounter Buddhist residents of the Maungdaw area who were driving the other direction to flee the chaos.
“I thought I was going to die.” said Hla Nu Sein. “I couldn’t run fast as my knee is not good. There are some elders still left in the village.”
She said her home had been burned down twice in the last few years of escalating violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, whom the Buddhists regard as having immigrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. There was no way to confirm her story.
Another fleeing resident, Khin Than Kyi, also blamed the Muslims and said they’d made the area unsafe.
“The problem at the moment is the (people from South Asia) set fire to the villages in the northern part of Maungdaw. There is nowhere safe to stay in Maungdaw if it is close to their villages. That’s why we are running away.”
The fleeing Buddhist families were driving toward Buthidaung, where monasteries on Monday were taking in the displaced, giving them a temporary home.
A Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, took responsibility for Thursday night’s attacks on more than 25 locations, saying they were in defense of Rohingya communities that had been brutalized by government forces. They vowed to continue to defend the communities.
The Rohingya have long faced severe discrimination and were the targets of violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people – predominantly Rohingya – from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where most remain.
The government refuses to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate native ethnic minority. Most Rohingya are denied citizenship and its rights.
The raids last Thursday were deadlier than an attack by the militants on three border posts last October that killed nine policemen and set off months of brutal counterinsurgency operations by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state.
Human rights groups accused the army of carrying out massive human rights abuses, including killing, rape and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.
The army’s abuses fueled further resentment toward the government among the Rohingya. ARSA took advantage of the resentment by stepping up recruitment of members.