“If we go back we’ll be either tortured or killed… [Hear] our stories of sorrow… how [would you] feel in our shoes?”
Thousands of majority-Muslim Rohingya in violence-wracked northwest Myanmar are pleading with authorities for safe passage from two remote villages cut off by hostile Buddhists and running short of food.
“We’re terrified,” Maung Maung, a Rohingya official at Ah Nauk Pyin village, told Reuters news agency by telephone. “We’ll starve soon and they’re threatening to burn down our houses.”
Another Rohingya contacted, who asked not to be named, said ethnic Rakhine Buddhists came to the same village and shouted, “Leave or we will kill you all.”
Fragile relations between Ah Nauk Pyin and its Rakhine neighbours were shattered on August 25 when deadly attacks by Rohingya rebels in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from Myanmar’s security forces.
About one million Rohingya lived in Rakhine until the recent violence. Most face draconian travel restrictions and are denied citizenship in a country where many Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine State government, said he was working closely with local authorities, and had received no information about the Rohingya villagers’ plea for safe passage.
“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said when asked about tensions. “Southern Rathedaung is completely safe.”
National police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he also had no information about the Rohingya villages, but he would look into the matter.
Britain is to host a ministerial meeting on Monday on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly in New York to discuss the situation in Rakhine State.
Ah Nauk Pyin sits on a mangrove-fringed peninsula in Rathedaung, one of three townships in northern Rakhine State. The villagers say they have no boats.
Until three weeks ago, there were 21 Muslim villages in Rathedaung, along with three camps for Muslims displaced by previous bouts of religious violence. Sixteen of those villages and all three camps have since been emptied and in many cases burned down, forcing an estimated 28,000 Rohingya to flee.
Rathedaung’s five surviving Rohingya villages and their 8,000 or so inhabitants are encircled by Rakhine Buddhists and acutely vulnerable, say human rights monitors.
The situation is particularly dire in Ah Nauk Pyin and nearby Naung Pin Gyi, where any escape route to Bangladesh is long, arduous, and sometimes blocked by hostile Rakhine neighbours.
Maung Maung, the Rohingya official, said the villagers were resigned to leaving but the authorities had not responded to their requests for security. At night, he said, villagers heard distant gunfire.
“It’s better they go somewhere else,” said Thein Aung, a Rathedaung official, who dismissed Rohingya allegations that Rakhines were threatening them.
Only two of the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) took place in Rathedaung. But the township was already a tinderbox of religious tension, with ARSA citing the mistreatment of Rohingya there as one justification for its offensive.
Maung Maung said he had called the police at least 30 times to report threats against his village.
On September 13, he said, he got a call from a Rakhine villager he knew. “Leave tomorrow or we’ll come and burn down all your houses,” said the man, according to a recording Maung Maung gave to Reuters.
When Maung Maung protested that they had no means to escape, the man replied: “That’s not our problem.”
On August 31, the police convened a roadside meeting between two villages, attended by seven Rohingya from Ah Nauk Pyin and 14 Rakhine officials from the surrounding villages.
Instead of addressing the Rohingya complaints, said Maung Maung and two other Rohingya who attended the meeting, the Rakhine officials delivered an ultimatum.
“They said they didn’t want any Muslims in the region and we should leave immediately,” said the Rohingya resident of Ah Nauk Pyin who requested anonymity.
The Rohingya agreed, said Maung Maung, but only if the authorities provided security.
They had yet to receive a response, he said.