Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage

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A fight breaks out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
A
fight breaks out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya
refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar

Thomson
Reuters


SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in
violence-racked northwest Myanmar are pleading with the
authorities for safe passage from two remote villages that are
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 by telephone. “We’ll starve soon and
they’re threatening to burn down our houses.”

Another Rohingya contacted by Reuters, 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 neighbors
were shattered on Aug. 25, when deadly attacks by Rohingya
militants in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from
Myanmar’s security forces.

At least 430,000 Rohingya have since fled into neighboring
Bangladesh to evade what the United Nations has called a
“textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

About a million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State 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, told
Reuters he was working closely with the Rathedaung 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 local tensions. “Southern Rathedaung is completely safe.”

National police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he also had no
information about the Rohingya villages, but said he would look
into the matter.

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
burnt, forcing an estimated 28,000 Rohingya to flee.


Rohingya refugees are seen waiting for a boat to cross the border through the Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar, September 7, 2017.REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya
refugees are seen waiting for a boat to cross the border through
the Naf river in Maungdaw, Myanmar

Thomson Reuters

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 neighbors.

Maung Maung, the Rohingya official, said the villagers are
resigned to leaving, but the authorities have not responded to
their requests for security. At night, he said, villagers had
heard distant gunfire.

“It’s better they go somewhere else,” said Thein Aung, a
Rathedaung official, who dismissed Rohingya claims that Rakhines
were threatening them.

Only two of the Aug. 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.

In late July, Rakhine residents of a large, mixed village in
northern Rathedaung corralled hundreds of Rohingya inside their
neighborhood, blocking access to food and water.

A similar pattern is repeating itself in southern Rathedaung,
with local Rakhine citing possible ARSA infiltration as a reason
for ejecting the last remaining Rohingya.

‘Another place’


Bula Katum (R), 35, a Rohingya refugee woman sits in a makeshift shelter at Kutupalang Makeshift Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Bula
Katum a Rohingya refugee woman sits in a shelter at Kutupalang
Makeshift Camp in Cox’s Bazar

Thomson
Reuters


Maung Maung said he had called the police at least 30 times to
report threats against his village.

On Sept. 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 Aug. 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.

He showed Reuters a letter that the village elders had sent to
the Rathedaung authorities on Sept. 7, asking to be moved to
“another place”. They had yet to receive a response, he said.

Violent history

Relations between the two communities deteriorated in 2012, when
religious unrest in Rakhine State killed nearly 200 people and
made 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Scores of houses in
Ah Nauk Pyin were torched.

Since then, said villagers, Rohingya have been too scared to
leave the village or till their land, surviving mainly on monthly
deliveries from the World Food Programme (WFP). The recent
violence halted those deliveries.

The WFP pulled out most staff and suspended operations in the
region after Aug. 25.

Residents in the area’s two Rohingya villages said they could no
longer venture out to fish or buy food from Rakhine traders, and
were running low on food and medicines.


FILE PHOTO: People belonging to Rohingya Muslim community sit outside their makeshift houses on the outskirts of Jammu, May 5, 2017. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta/File photo
FILE
PHOTO: People belonging to Rohingya Muslim community sit outside
their makeshift houses on the outskirts of
Jammu

Thomson
Reuters


Maung Maung said the local police told the Rohingya to stay in
their villages and not to worry because “nothing would happen,”
he said.

But the nearest police station had only half a dozen or so
officers, he said, and couldn’t do much if Ah Nauk Pyin was
attacked.

A few minutes’ walk away, at the Rakhine village of Shwe Long
Tin, residents were also on edge, said its leader, Khin Tun Aye.

They had also heard gunfire at night, he said, and were guarding
the village around the clock with machetes and slingshots in case
the Rohingya attacked with ARSA’s help.

“We’re also terrified,” he said.

He said he told his fellow Rakhine to stay calm, but the
situation remained so tense that he feared for the safety of his
Rohingya neighbors.

“If there is violence, all of them will be killed,” he said.

(Reporting by Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Ian
Geoghegan)



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