YANGON — Myanmar security forces intensified operations against Rohingya insurgents yesterday, the police and other sources said, following three days of clashes with militants in the worst violence involving Myanmar’s Muslim minority in five years.
“Now the situation is not good. Everything depends on them — if they’re active, the situation will be tense,” said police officer Tun Hlaing from Buthidaung township, referring to the Rohingya insurgents. Rohingya villagers make up the majority in the area.
“We split into two groups: One will provide security at police outposts and the other group is going out for clearance operations with the military,” he said.
Many houses had been burning since Sunday in parts of neighbouring Maungdaw town, a journalist and a military source in Maungdaw told Reuters.
A Rohingya villager in the area said the army attacked three hamlets in the Kyee Kan Pyin village group with shotguns and other weapons, before torching houses. “Everything is on fire,” he said in a phone interview. “Now, I’m in the fields with the people, we’re running away.”
A military source in Rakhine State confirmed that houses were burned in the area, but blamed the insurgents, who he said opened fire when soldiers came to find them and clear landmines. The insurgents fled, he said, adding there were no casualties.
The Myanmar military reported clashes over the weekend involving hundreds of insurgents. The fighting — triggered by coordinated attacks on Friday by insurgents wielding sticks, knives and crude bombs on 30 police posts and an army base — has killed 104 people and led to the flight of large numbers of Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist civilians from the northern part of Rakhine State.
The violence marks the dramatic escalation of a conflict that has simmered since October, when a similar, but much smaller series of Rohingya attacks on security posts prompted a brutal military response dogged by allegations of rights abuses.
Amid the ongoing clashes, the Vatican announced yesterday that Pope Francis will visit Myanmar — a largely Buddhist country plagued by inter-religious fighting — and Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from that conflict.
The visit will see Pope Francis travel first to Myanmar on Nov 27 to 30, visiting Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw. On Nov 30, he will travel to the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, leaving on Dec 2.
It is the first time a pope has travelled to Myanmar, and only the second time a papal visit has been made to Bangladesh after Pope John Paul II’s trip there in 1986.
The Pope has frequently lamented the treatment of the Rohingya, a largely stateless Muslim minority who have long lived under apartheid-like restrictions in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine. Tens of thousands have fled to Bangladesh in recent months to escape fighting between Rohingya militants and Myanmar’s army — with particularly ferocious clashes erupting in the last few days.
Earlier yesterday, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi accused Rohingya fighters of burning down homes and using child soldiers during the recent surge in violence, allegations denied by the militants themselves.
The government department directly run by Ms Suu Kyi— the State Counsellor’s Office — has released a flurry of statements via Facebook, including grim pictures of civilians allegedly shot dead by militants.
“Terrorists have been fighting security forces by using children at the frontline (and) setting fire (to) minority-ethnic villages,” the office said in its latest statement yesterday.
It added that there should be “no concerns for civilians who are not linked with extremist terrorists”, and called on Rohingya to not brandish “sticks, swords and weapons” when security forces approached.
The militant group behind the fighting — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) — hit back with its own allegations.“While raiding Rohingya villages, the Burmese brutal military soldiers bring along with them groups of Rakhine (Buddhist) extremists to attack Rohingya villagers, loot Rohingyas’ properties and later burn down Rohingya houses,” the group said via its Twitter account @ARSA_Official yesterday.