THE LATEST CONFLICT began when militants with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) early on Aug. 25 stormed at least 30 Myanmar security posts in Rakhine state with guns and explosives, launching an attack the group called a “defensive action.” ARSA first emerged publicly with a similar attack last October—fighting, they say, for the liberation of the Rohingya. Rakhine state was then the home to the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims. Burma, long ruled by a military junta, has denied the Rohingya citizenship or legal rights, branding them instead as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. David Eubank, director of Christian aid group Free Burma Rangers, said some members of the ARSA militia may have conducted terror acts, but the group’s fight is largely a reaction to oppression. “It’s a natural human reaction, when you’re systemically oppressed, to fight back.”
Myanmar troops responded to the attacks with “clearance operations” that went beyond the militants to target civilians and their villages. Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, said it treated 147 Rohingya with gunshot wounds between Aug. 25 and Sept. 12. Survivors in Bangladesh told MTW’s Sandy that first the army shot at them, and local Buddhist villagers followed with machetes to kill the wounded. Everyone ran. One man, disabled before the crisis, narrated his escape: “He crawled to a field and was later carried by other villagers,” Sandy said. Satellite imagery publicized by Human Rights Watch showed more than 200 Rohingya villages burned to the ground. In one village, only about 250 of the 1,450 villagers survived.
One 30-year-old woman identified as S.K. told Amnesty International the Myanmar soldiers separated the men from the women in the village of Min Gyi. They opened fire on the men, took the women into the empty houses, and stripped them naked. “They first hit us in the head to make us weak. … Then they raped us,” she said. Those who fled trekked for days to cross into Bangladesh. Some paid as much as $121 to take boat rides across the Bay of Bengal into Bangladesh, and at least 184 Rohingya drowned after their boats capsized at sea.
Those who made it to Bangladesh arrived into what Jared Berends, operation director of World Vision in Bangladesh, described as extremely cramped quarters. “There’s not enough toilets to go around, and people are having to defecate in the open,” he said after a recent visit. About 60 percent of the refugees are children, and aid agencies responding to the crisis have raised concerns of possible disease outbreaks. Somsida, an 11-year-old Rohingya Muslim, told World Vision she still wakes up from nightmares of people running and crying. “They’re traumatized and in shock,” said Berends. “The psychological scars will remain.”