Tens of thousands of Muslims have begun fleeing toward Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh as Buddhist mobs and security forces step up crackdown on members of the Rohingya community over recent attacks on police outposts.
Reports said Muslims in mass numbers were trying to cross into Bangladesh on Saturday after security operations were intensified and police used live bullets to target suspected militants in various villages of the volatile Rakhine state.
The exodus comes two days after dozens of police and border outposts in Rakhine came under attack by fighters of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group claiming to be advocating the Muslim Rohingya against a years-long government crackdown in Rakhine. A total of 89 people, including 12 security personnel, were killed during the Thursday attacks and the ensuing military operations, the government has said.
Fleeing Muslims caught on fire
Journalists watching the mass flow of Muslims on Saturday said Myanmar’s troops used mortar shells and machine guns to fire at hundreds of fleeing Rohingya villagers. They said civilians were running for their lives as the troops opened fire. Bangladesh border guards also confirmed the account, saying the firing took place at Ghumdhum border post where thousands have been stranded since Friday, when renewed clashes began.
“They have fired on civilians, mostly women and children, hiding in the hills near the (border) zero line,” Border Guard Bangladesh’s station chief Manzurul Hassan said, adding, “They fired machine guns and mortar shells suddenly, targeting the civilians.”
Hassan said Myanmar’s authorities had not consulted the firing with Bangladesh border guards. There was no report about potential casualties.
The confrontation comes against the backdrop of months-long turbulence in Rakhine. In October last year, the government decided to launch a sweeping crackdown on villagers after several security personnel were killed in attacks by what the government called Rohingya militants. That sparked a huge human tragedy as tens of thousands of people left their destroyed homes and fled to Bangladesh.
The United Nations has repeatedly criticized Myanmar’s handling of the incidents, saying it fears that the action could amount to ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi keeps rejecting UN accounts as she seems incapable of reigning in the military and violent Buddhist mobs.
Some estimates say that about 100,000 people have gathered along the border with Bangladesh over the past two days as the Muslim-dominated country struggles to push back the flow.
About half a million Rohingya Muslims have already been accommodated in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region and Dhaka says it can no longer shoulder the burden. Local residents said some 2,000 Rohingya refugees had managed to cross the border since renewed clashes began.