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'We are hostages': Two years on, Rohingya still in Myanmar trapped by new war

  • Published at 01:55 am August 25th, 2019
Myanmar-army-Rakhine
File photo: Myanmar police officer stands guard in Maungdaw, Rakhine July 9, 2019 Reuters

'We are stuck in the middle of their fight'

When Myanmar officials toured refugee camps in Bangladesh last month, inviting Rohingya Muslims who fled the country to return, they brought with them pamphlets adorned with cartoons showing hijab-wearing women passing through checkpoints and happily grasping identity cards.

They did not mention the new war being waged at home.

While the majority of Rohingya residents of north-western Myanmar were driven out by a military campaign that began in August 2017, a scattered community of some 200,000 remained behind in Rakhine state, in villages that were spared the violence. Two years on, many of them are now trapped by a new conflict.

Since late last year, government troops have been battling the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that recruits from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine, who make up the majority in the region.

The worsening fighting has left Rohingya caught in the middle and facing threats from both sides, a dozen villagers told Reuters, making returns ever more unlikely.

"We are stuck in the middle of their fight," said Tin Shwe, a villager from Buthidaung township, where clashes have been intense. "There has been no improvement of our lives over the past two years, only degradation. Only trouble."

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine to Bangladesh after Myanmar's armed forces launched a crackdown following attacks on security posts on August 25, 2017.

Information blackout

Authorities have shut northern Rakhine off from journalists and most humanitarian agencies, and imposed an internet blackout since late June, citing the need to avert unrest.

The restrictions make information difficult to verify, but Reuters spoke to a dozen Rohingya still in central and northern Rakhine and refugees in Bangladesh with relatives who stayed behind.

Some described landmine blasts and shells falling in Muslim villages, as well as intimidation from combatants on both sides of the conflict.

Two told Reuters they would flee to Bangladesh if they could, but routes out of the country used during the previous exodus have been rendered unsafe by the violence.

Caught in crossfire

The Arakan Army has been fighting for greater autonomy for Rakhine, a region that was an independent kingdom for centuries. In its calls for an armed "revolution," the group draws on deep-seated historical resentment felt by some Rakhines towards the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the central government.

Rohingya still living in the area say they have been caught in the middle of the conflict.

In Buthidaung township said soldiers had asked him to guide troops, as he was a proficient Burmese speaker. Some of the Muslim population, particularly from poorer communities, speak only the Rohingya dialect.

Afterwards, the villager said, he got a call from an unknown number, warning that anyone who helped the military would face consequences. He said the speaker told him: "We will kill you. We will burn your village."

Two Rohingya were shot dead in Rathedaung township's Sin Khone Taing village in early August after escorting troops, five locals told Reuters. 

"We are hostages, stuck between two groups," said one Muslim who fled the village. "We are not safe. It has been three times already that we have fled from the village since June. The government cannot control this area."

Aid shortages

Many Rohingya in Myanmar have been reliant on international non-profit organizations for medical care and deliveries of food since a previous bout of violence in 2012 that forced many into camps.

Since the start of the Arakan Army conflict, little has been getting through.

In Rathedaung's Sin Khone Taing village, Rohingya said they last received a delivery of food in May. "People are living off rice porridge," said one villager.

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