SITTWE ― Terrified residents fled northern Myanmar yesterday, thousands evacuating on foot and others airlifted out by helicopter, as troops hunted through torched villages for those behind attacks on police that have raised fears Rakhine state could again be torn apart.
Local officials believe a series of attacks on police posts along the Bangladesh border this week that sparked the crisis were planned for months by hundreds of people from inside the region, home to many from the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority.
Dozens of people have died in clashes with troops after the military locked down the area, sparking fears of a repeat of 2012 when sectarian clashes ripped through Rakhine leaving more than 100 dead and driving tens of thousands into displacement camps.
Families streamed down the roads around Maungdaw town on foot on Thursday, their worldly possessions stuffed into carrier bags and plastic buckets or strapped to the front of bicycle rickshaws.
Around 180 teachers, workers and residents were airlifted out of the region at the epicentre of the crisis, while hundreds of government staff poured into the state capital Sittwe fleeing the mounting unrest.
On the ground in Maungdaw, an AFP journalist reported seeing clouds of smoke billowing from a village Thursday near charred remains of two dozen bamboo houses that the military said “terrorists” had torched the previous day.
Troops have killed 26 people since deadly raids on border posts Sunday, according to state media. Nine police died that night, and four more soldiers have lost their lives in ensuing clashes.
Most residents in northern Rakhine are Rohingya, a stateless minority branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by many from Myanmar’s Buddhist majority.
Witnesses say troops have used investigations of Sunday’s attacks as an excuse for a crackdown against them, gunning down unarmed Muslim civilians in the street. The military say they have been defending themselves from armed attackers.
Rakhine state government spokesman Min Aung said the border post assailants had spent months plotting the raids, which were originally intended to hit as many as seven targets.
“There are about 200 to 300 currently in the group,” he told reporters in Sittwe, declining to explain how he knew. “According to our interrogations of those we have arrested, they initially planned to attack six or seven locations.”
Authorities have given scant details of who was behind the attacks, though officials have publicly pointed the finger at Rohingya insurgents and privately blamed Bangladeshi groups across the border.
The military said late Thursday troops had captured a fifth suspect, along with a gun, ammunition and flags featuring the logo of the RSO, a Rohingya militant group founded in the 80s and long considered defunct. The RSO vigorously denied the accusations in an email to AFP.
The escalating unrest in Rakhine poses a major challenge for the country’s new elected government, led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel laureate has faced international criticism for not doing more to help the Rohingya, and on Wednesday she vowed to follow the rule of law when investigating the border guard attacks.
The commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s army, Min Aung Hlaing, has sought to play down the violence, saying the “current issues in Rakhine were not brought about by religious conflict”. ― AFP