MAUNGDAW, Rakhine State — Having fled their own village weeks ago, about 150 Mro, a sub-ethic group of Arakanese, were preparing to escape the violence gripping northern Rakhine again.
They had taken refuge at Arakanese village Kai Gyee in southern Maungdaw after six farmers were brutally killed at the start of August in their 50-household village, known as Kai Gyee Mro, near the Mayu mountain range. Police found another body a few days later, and presumed another missing villager dead.
The government tied the deaths to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), whose attacks on police stations on Aug. 25 left at least 59 of the militants and 12 security personnel dead. Since then, clashes between ARSA—deemed a terrorist organization by the government—and the Myanmar Army have devastated communities in the area.
Latest UN estimates suggest about 58,600 Rohingya Muslims—called “Bengalis” by many in Myanmar to imply they are interlopers from Bangladesh—have fled into that neighboring country. Many of these refugees say the Myanmar Army is burning their homes and killing them. The government says ARSA is culpable for the burnings.
Meanwhile, more than 13,500 Arakanese and Hindus have been evacuated to shelters, according to the government. With civilian causalities and regular clashes between Myanmar security forces and ARSA, the 150-strong group of Mro was preparing to leave the Arakanese village on Aug. 31 for a shelter in Maungdaw under the protection of security forces when The Irrawaddy met them.
“We have never seen anything like this before. We do not dare to stay in this village anymore because all of Arakanese already left the village. We are also going to move again today,” said U San Tun, head of Kai Gyee Mro village.
“We could not sleep well at night,” he added. “We could clearly hear the drumming and chanting voices from Muslim villages located right behind us.”
The Mro had led lives relatively free from regional politics. Their village, at the foot of the mountains, depends on crops and paddies deep in the forest. It can only be accessed by a trek of about two hours.
Most of the villagers do not speak the Myanmar language, but their predicament is echoed across the Maungdaw region. Residents of the village in which they have taken refuge have fled to Border Guard Post 3-mile checkpoint near Tha Si village or state capital Sittwe, where some have relatives.
ARSA has killed 15 members of Myanmar’s security forces since its early morning offensive on Aug. 25, according to the government, while the Tatamadaw says it has killed 370 and captured nine militants tied to ARSA, as well as confiscated nine firearms, and 23 improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
ARSA’s claim that it would not target civilians has been sullied by the deaths of seven Hindus, three ethnic Daingnet, and four Arakanese in recent days, which were at the hands of militants, according to witnesses. Thirty-three shelters protected by security forces have been established in the region.
The Irrawaddy heard a first-hand account of a suspected ARSA attack from Kamala, one of 12 Hindu family members who were returning home from working as casual laborers in Myin Hlut village in southern Maungdaw on Aug. 26 when they were caught in clashes between ARSA and the military.
Kamala of No. 4 Quarter in downtown Maungdaw recalled seeking refuge in a district court building that was undergoing construction when “about 100” militants wielding guns, machetes, and slingshots shouted at them, “Hindus are there…we must kill them first,” she said through a translator.
The militants wore black clothes and masks, she said, and screamed, “Allah has come to take you.” Six of the family was killed, including her husband and one of her children, she said, while she was shot in the chest, fell unconscious and left for dead.
Four children and another woman managed to escape to a neighboring village where security forces were deployed.
Kamala was hospitalized in Buthidaung Township where she met The Irrawaddy and was transferred to Sittwe on Saturday for further medical treatment.
Residents of the Muslim village of Maung Ni, in the six-village tract of Shwe Zar near Maungdaw town, are restricted from gathering in groups larger than five and from going outside between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Village administrator Havene Husong told The Irrawaddy that no homes had been burned in the tract of some 20,000 people—many of whom are Muslim—unlike other villages in the region.
People are sharing food with each other, he said, as the market is opened for only a few hours per day and fishermen have been stopped from going out. Some displaced people from Myo Thu Gyi village located outside of the tract whose homes were burned came to stay with relatives in Maung Ni. It was not clear who burned the houses, said Havene Husong.
“People can solve the food shortage here if the authorities let us open the market a bit earlier,” he said. Security forces have blocked entrances to the creeks, market and closed border gates.
Muslim villager Ro Shid said locals have not clashed with authorities, though in the volatile atmosphere, many stay indoors, even forgoing food shopping to avoid possible conflict with non-Muslims that could exasperate the current situation in Maungdaw.
A Muslim resident who asked for anonymity told The Irrawaddy his entire village has rejected the ARSA attacks.
“This kind of conduct is not acceptable,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Now trust has collapsed between the Rakhine and Muslim communities again. Firstly, we must rebuild trust to restore a normal situation,” he said, acknowledging that restoring a peaceful climate would take longer than the aftermath of previous communal conflict.
Calls for Evacuation
People living in rural areas have been calling to be evacuated amid the ongoing violence. The government has airlifted civil servants in some villages where they fear of being assaulted by Muslim militants active in the area.
Guran Gaw, a Hindu resident of Maungdaw who was sheltering in a downtown school, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that nearly 300 Hindus were stranded in La Tha village on the outskirts of the town, where they felt vulnerable to the threat of militant attacks.
Militants told the Hindus “we will kill you if you try to flee from this village,” he said. Another Hindu, Shu Bun, also known as Kyaw Kyaw Naing, and several other Hindus said they saw on Aug. 26 militants shoot a Hindu man and torch Hindus’ houses.
The Irrawaddy was unable to independently verify the account. According to Shu Bun, 30 Hindus have been missing since the clashes flared.
On Sep. 1, Myanmar security forces escorted 300 Hindus from La Tha and 199 Hindus from Nga Yan Chaung village, according to the government. Several Hindu sources, were concerned, however, that Hindus of Kha Maung Siek village in northern Maungdaw needed evacuating.
Altogether, the government says so far it has evacuated about 13,530 non-Muslims, including 9,402 from 43 villages in Maungdaw, and 2,326 from 34 villages in Buthidaung. Some 1,800 are Hindus and the rest Arakanese.
Reduced to ash
Latest government updates state ARSA militants have torched 32 villages in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships, including two quarters in downtown Maungdaw, in order to taint Myanmar’s name on the international stage.
Satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows burnings taking place at 17 separate sites across northern Rakhine from Aug. 25-30, including the torching of 700 buildings in Rohingya village Chein Khar Li in Rathedaung Township, a near total destruction of the village.
But the government has not provided any evidence to support these allegations, stated HRW, nor did they prove similar allegations during the burning of Rohingya areas between October and December 2016. The rights group determined Myanmar security forces deliberately set those fires.
The Irrawaddy witnessed the smoldering remnants of hundreds of houses surrounding Maungdaw town and in its downtown quarters. Eyewitnesses described the situation as worse than previous arson attacks after Oct. 9 militant assaults on border posts.
Near the entrance of downtown Maungdaw is the some 1,230-house Myo Thu Gyi village, one of the largest Muslim villages in the area, with a population of about 8,600. The homes flanking the main road; the market; the school; and the government office have mostly been reduced to heaps of ash.
Tens of thousands of Arakanese, Hindus, and Muslims are fleeing the violence. Local reporters in Maungdaw told The Irrawaddy that businesspeople, government workers, and others are leaving.
“Only men who can defend themselves are staying in the town,” said a local reporter under the condition of anonymity. “The rest [of the Arakanese] are moving to more peaceful towns in Rakhine.”
The Irrawaddy met eight families appealing for funds from the public near Buthidaung jetty on Thursday afternoon in order to buy tickets to Sittwe.
Thick grey clouds rolled above the town, releasing a downpour that stirred the displaced people to fix tarpaulin over the heads of their children.
Kha Yay Myaing village resident of southern Maungdaw, Daw Ma Oo Sein, who was among the crowd, said her son was killed by ARSA militants on the way to Border Guard Post 3-mile checkpoint. Other family members escaped, she said.
“I don’t want to stay in this place anymore,” she added. “Life is more precious than property.”