Yangon, Myanmar – The suffocating smell of charred wood has followed 19-year-old Ahmed for days. On Saturday, a group of armed men set fire to his home village of Ywa Thai Kay. With flames licking his heels and the sound of bullets cutting through the air, Ahmed, who spoke under a pseudonym, was forced to flee his childhood home, desperately clutching his most prized possessions – his English books.
Five days later, Ahmed is again facing the threat of arson, this time in the remote village of Myoma Kayin Dan where he and 2,000 other unarmed Rohingya civilians have sought refuge after losing their homes. Surrounding villages were burning on Wednesday.
“There is a big river behind this village,” said Ahmed in a phone interview. “The women and children will not be able to cross it. We are so worried because we are trapped between the river and the military with no food to eat.”
He continued: “If they start to burn this village, then we will all be in trouble; we have nowhere to go.”
According to satellite imagery collected by Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 10 areas over about a 100km stretch in northern Rakhine State, which lies in the country’s west on the border with Bangladesh, have been razed over the past five days.
“There is no ARSA here,” Ahmed said, referring to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the ethnic armed group which launched a series of attacks against dozens of government checkpoints last Friday, in which more than 70 were killed, including 12 security officers.
“We informed the military that there are no fighters here, that they can come check for themselves, but instead they are firing their guns at us and burning down our houses … we don’t have anywhere to go, everyone is distressed and people are trying to commit suicide,” he said with despair.
At least 109 people have died in the military operation and clashes that have followed last week’s attack. According to the government, most of the victims are Rohingya fighters although members of the security forces and civilians are also included in that figure.
In the past week, nearly 50,000 Rohingya Muslims have been on the run from the violence. About 27,000 of those fleeing have crossed the border into Bangladesh, while 20,000 are trapped in a no man’s land between two nations, according to UN sources, Reuters reported Thursday. The bodies of 20 Rohingya women and children were today recovered from a capsized boat by Bangladeshi border guards.
This is the worst outbreak of violence in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State in the past five years, and the death toll is expected to rise.
“We already have satellite data that shows that more burning has taken place,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “This will continue to spread.”
With independent monitors prohibited from entering the military zone, HRW has not been able to confirm the cause of the fires. However, several Rohingya sources say that ethnic Rakhine civilians perpetrated the arson attacks, supported by the Myanmar military and Border Guard Police (BGP).
“We saw two military men in the town holding guns and then behind them were two Rakhine villagers with the petrol and a lighter. The military shot their guns into the village so that we ran away and after that, the Rakhine burned our houses,” said Ahmed, describing the events in his home village.
The government’s spokesperson, Zaw Htay was not immediately available to comment on these accusations.
A foreign aid worker, evacuated from Maungdaw township in Rakhine State three days ago, witnessed violence similar to what Ahmed experienced. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation amid growing nationalist fervour.
“I saw lots of burning houses and I heard from multiple sources on the ground that Rakhine villagers were participating in the burning and that the BGP and military were offering them security,” he said.
Yesterday, U Wirathu – a firebrand monk from the Buddhist nationalist organisation Ma Ba Tha – gave a fervent speech at a rally in the capital Yangon, demanding all international NGOs be expelled from Rakhine State so that military rule and Buddhist sovereignty could be established. An adoring crowd waved placards that called for a crackdown on so-called “terrorist” and “foreign incursions”.
Pandering to this rhetoric, Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, released a statement accusing the international aid community of participating with “extremist terrorists”. In another statement, she warned both foreign and local journalists that “writing in medias in support of extremist terrorists and ARSA are banned“.
The ARSA has rejected the “terrorist” label championed by the government. In a statement released via an unverified Twitter account purporting to represent ARSA, Commander Ataullah said that they “exist legitimately under international law to defend, salvage and protect Rohingya community in Arakan with its best capacities in line with the principles of self-defence”.
But with the government emboldening the country’s hardline nationalists forces, it is likely these calls will fall on deaf ears.
“The State Counselor’s messaging on the situation is inflammatory. Her office is drumming up anti-Rohingya and anti-aid worker sentiment at a time when she should be instilling calm and calling for restraint,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the human rights organisation Fortify Rights.
“People are calling for blood. The government is shaping public opinion towards the notion that all Rohingya are deceptive and pose an existential threat to the nation. It’s inexcusable,” he said.
But it is with this government approval and unflinching public support that the Myanmar military and Rakhine citizens continue their scorched earth campaign against the besieged Rohingya Muslims.
“At least I have my books,” Ahmed said with resignation, as clouds of black smoke encircled the village of Myoma Kayin Dan. “However desperate my situation, I will always find solace in them.”
He says the villagers can only now wait to see if the military decides to set fire to their location – or let them be.