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Sun Sep 3, 2017, 03:38 AM Sep 2017

Thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar amid tales of ethnic cleansing


The Observer

Thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar amid tales of ethnic cleansing

Jacob Judah on the Myanmar border

Saturday 2 September 2017 21.00 BST Last modified on Saturday 2 September 2017 22.01 BST

Gunfire and explosions crackle in the hills. Plumes of smoke from burning villages streak the monsoon-grey sky. Refugees fleeing for their lives are pouring into Bangladesh over the Myanmar border as the conflict between Myanmar security forces and Rohingya militias escalates and risks spiralling into a humanitarian disaster.

The refugees say their villages are being raided and burned. They tell stories of the indiscriminate killing of civilians at the hands of security forces and Buddhist nationalists. Since 25 August, more than 18,500 Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group, have fled into Bangladesh from Rakhine state. However, UN sources say they believe the true figure is closer to 28,000. And Bangladeshi aid workers claimed on Saturday that 70,000 – almost 10% of the Rohingya population – had crossed in less than 24 hours. “This is a new dimension,” said Adil Sakhawat, a journalist with the Dhaka Tribune.

On top of those already here, UN sources have said there could be another 20,000 refugees stranded in a narrow strip of no man’s land that separates mainly Buddhist Myanmar and predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. Prevented from entering Bangladesh by border guards, these Rohingya have limited access to relief and have been forced to rely on the help of local villagers to survive.

Rakhine state and the Rohingya are no strangers to ethnic violence. Fighting last October forced 87,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. However, both refugees and Sakhawat said this year was different. “There were large influxes in 2012, 2015, and 2016, but this time it has broken every record,” he said. “It is drastically different.” Ominously, there are now fewer men entering Bangladesh than in previous years. Sakhawat, who walked four hours into the mountains in the Baichari area of the border, said: “The Rohingya told me that the Myanmar military are indiscriminately killing men of fighting age.” He said he also heard accounts from four villages in northern Maungdaw that “the military are taking the children from the arms of their mothers, and throwing them away”.

The Rohingya are from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Numbering about 1.1 million, there are now estimated to be more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They face systematic discrimination in Myanmar and are often referred to as the world’s most persecuted minority. Myanmar denies them citizenship, alleging they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
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