New Myanmar fires in empty Rohingya village raise questions
BANGKOK (AP) — Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in a Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and pages ripped from Islamic texts that were left on the ground. That intensifies doubts about government claims that members of the persecuted minority have been destroying their own homes.
About two dozen journalists saw the fires in Gawdu Zara village in northern Rakhine state on a government-controlled trip. Some 164,000 Rohingya from the area have fled across the border in Bangladesh in less than two weeks since Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police outposts in Gawdu Zara and several others, the U.N. refugee agency said Thursday.
The military has said nearly 400 people, most they described as insurgents, had died in clashes and that troops were conducting “clearance operations.” It blames insurgents for setting the villages on fire, without offering proof.
The Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, however, all described large-scale violence perpetrated by Myanmar troops and Buddhist mobs — setting fire to their homes, spraying bullets indiscriminately, stabbing civilians and ordering them to abandon their homes or be killed.
On the Myanmar side of the border, reporters saw no Rohingya in any of the five destroyed villages they were allowed to tour Thursday, making it unlikely they could have been responsible for the fires.
An ethnic Rakhine villager who emerged from the smoke said police and Rakhine Buddhists had set the fires. The villager ran off before he could be asked anything else.
No police were seen in the village beyond those who were accompanying the journalists. But about 10 Rakhine men with machetes were seen there. They looked nervous; the only one who spoke said he had just arrived and didn’t know how the fires started.
Among the buildings on fire was a madrassa, an Islamic school. Copies of books with texts from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, were torn up and thrown outside. A nearby mosque was not burned.
Another village the journalists visited, Ah Lel Than Kyaw, was blackened, obliterated and deserted. Cattle and dogs wandered through the still-smoldering remains.
Local police officer Aung Kyaw Moe said 18 people were killed in the village when the violence began last month. “From our side, there was one immigration officer dead, and we found 17 dead bodies from the enemy side,” he said.
He said the fires were set Aug. 25, though some of them continued to burn Thursday. Virtually all buildings in the village seen by journalists had been burned, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles that fleeing villagers left behind. A mosque was also damaged.
Columns of smoke could be seen rising in the distance, and distant gunshots could be heard.
“They burned their own houses and ran away,” Aung Kyaw Moe said. “We didn’t see who actually burned them because we had to take care of the security for our outpost. … But when the houses were burned, Bengalis were the only ones in the village.”
Burning Rohingya homes can make it less likely that they return. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes in another wave of violence in 2012. Many of them are now confined to camps, while the land they once held is either vacant or occupied by Buddhist squatters.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger based in Europe with contacts in northern Rakhine, said that according to witnesses, the Burmese military, border guard police and Rakhine villagers came to Ah Lel Than Kyaw and burned the houses from Monday to Wednesday.
On Aug. 25, he said, young men with swords and knives tried to attack the border guard outpost in Aley Than Kyaw but failed. The authorities took away all Buddhist villagers, and many Rohingya villagers fled on their own.
Nay San Lwin said the remaining villagers left after the Burmese military warned them they would be shot dead if they didn’t leave.
Myanmar refers to Rohingya as Bengalis, contending they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has dismissed the Rohingya crisis as a misinformation campaign.
According to her office, she said such misinformation helps promote the interests of “terrorists,” a reference to the Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts on Aug. 25.