SITTWE, Rakhine State – Eight-year-old Muni is one of the sole survivors in her Hindu family, after eight of her relatives were reportedly killed by Muslim militants one week ago in Kha Mauk Seik village, some 40 miles from downtown Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine State.
The girl had left her family to work in the home of a friend, Mina Kumari, also in Maungdaw Township, six months earlier.
Through an interpreter, Muni told The Irrawaddy on Sunday a statement that was echoed by other relatives and a Hindu community leader in Bangladesh—that she had heard her parents, grandmother, newborn brother, sisters and brothers-in-law had been killed.
One of her elder sisters is among eight women who said they were initially abducted by militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), but now sheltering at a relief camp in Bangladesh’s Kutupalong District. Following ARSA attacks on 30 police outposts on Aug. 25, the Myanmar government declared the group a terrorist organization.
According to aid workers, Bangladesh is also now hosting some 87,000 self-identifying Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled northern Rakhine State since the Myanmar Army began renewed clearance operations in Maungdaw following the ARSA attacks.
They join hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees already in the region, displaced after an earlier round of attacks in 2016.
An additional 11,700 Buddhist Arakanese, Arakanese subgroups, and Hindus have been internally displaced, with many taking shelter in monasteries in the state capital of Sittwe, and Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw townships.
Bangladesh’s The Daily Star reported on Sept. 1, that around 400 Hindus had left Rakhine State for Bangladesh and were staying at makeshift camp in Kutupalong, alongside displaced Muslims.
More than 500 Hindus are also taking refuge at four temples in Sittwe, partially supported by a government relief team, according to community leaders in Sittwe.
The Daily Star said that the displaced villagers estimated that more than 80 members of their communities in Rakhine State had been killed by unidentified armed men.
As journalists are barred from the conflict zone, The Irrawaddy spoke to religious leaders and relatives of the deceased in Sittwe.
Villagers who arrived in Sittwe on Sunday told The Irrawaddy that they believed around 70 residents of three communities—Kha Mauk Seik Taung Ywar, Kha Mauk Seik Yebaw Kyar, and Ohtein (also known as as Fakirabazar, Riktapara, and Chikonchhari respectively)—had been killed.
“The news about Kha Mauk Seik was heard on Saturday, and they are so desperate. They have no family members left to take care for them,” said U Maung Hla, the vice chairman of the Rakhine State Hindu Council, referring to 8-year-old Muni and another girl—16-year-old, Kajali, who told The Irrawaddy that since she left Maungdaw four months ago, she had lost nine relatives.
Mina Kumari, with whom Muni is living, told The Irrawaddy that she had lost her son in the violence, but had made contact with her daughter-in-law and Muni’s sister now in Bangladesh.
“My daughter-in-law could not speak properly on the phone, she was crying a lot and was very afraid,” said Mina Kumari.
Mina Kumari said that her daughter-in-law explained over the phone that she had been forced to undergo a conversion to Islam with seven other women, and that she and her three children avoided being murdered after she gave one of the gunmen her gold earrings.
The Irrawaddy was unable to interview the victims directly on the phone, as they said they were too afraid to speak to the media, in either Burmese, Arakanese or Hindi languages.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy through an interpreter and on the condition of anonymity, a leader from the Hindu temple in Dakshin Nihla in Bangladesh said that the eight women in question—including Mina Kumari’s daughter-in-law—were brought to the temple by Bangladeshi border police.
He estimated 470 Hindus had fled to Bangladesh.
He alleged that the women were filmed by members of the ARSA and told to say they feared attacks from ethnic Arakanese and the Myanmar security forces.
A sister-in-law of one of the survivors of the Hindu villages watched the video and told The Irrawaddy: “I know these women, two are from Buthidaung two are from Maungdaw.”
It should be noted, however, that widely documented testimony has been given by refugees to international media outlets, human rights organizations, and the UN since Myanmar Army clearance operations from October 2016 to February 2017 following the Oct. 9, 2016 attacks, describing the perpetration of abuses by security forces ranging from torture to rape to arson and extrajudicial killings.
Government figures report that since Aug. 25, 15 members of Myanmar’s military and police have been killed and 14 civilians—including seven Rakhine Hindus, three Daingnet, and four Arakanese.
The government states that 370 suspected militants had been killed since Aug. 25, but these figures do not address the deaths of Muslim civilians, who make up the largest displaced group.