Myanmar claims success in stopping exodus; refugees disagree
In this Oct. 5, 2017, video released by Arakan Rohingya National Organization, villagers are seen preparing to cross a river towards the Maungdaw township in the Rakhine state that borders Bangladesh. (Arakan Rohingya National Organization via the AP)
Esther Htusan, The Associated Press
Published Friday, October 6, 2017 9:10AM EDT
BANGKOK -- More Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar streamed toward the border Friday, despite government assurances that it was stopping the massive exodus of refugees to Bangladesh.
A video obtained by The Associated Press that villagers said was shot Thursday in northern Rakhine state shows dozens of Rohingya attempting to swim across the currents of a muddy river, from where it is a more than 20-kilometre (12-mile) walk through jungles to the border. Many more people, from young children to old men, stand huddled with their belongings on the riverbank.
Myanmar has come under international criticism for failing to stop the violence, and in turn the tide of more than half a million Rohingya who have made the often perilous journey to Bangladesh since late August, the largest refugee crisis to hit Asia in decades. The Myanmar government's information committee said in a statement late Thursday that it had stopped 17,000 Rohingya from fleeing in just four days last week.
"The Myanmar authorities in northern Rakhine went to the border areas where thousands of Bengalis await to flee and talked to them," it said. "The local authorities told the Bengalis if they have difficulties with their livelihood, they will provide food and security and to return to their villages. The Bengalis agreed to stay."
Myanmar doesn't recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, instead insisting they are Bengali migrants from Bangladesh living illegally in the country.
The government may have had some success in keeping Rohingya in Myanmar in recent days, but villagers say Rohingya are still attempting to leave and many are gathered on the beaches just across the water from Bangladesh waiting for a chance to leave the country.
"There are more than a thousand villagers at the beach in Alel Than Kyaw village off the shore trying to flee but the authorities are not letting them go," one villager told the AP by phone on Friday. The villager spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
Bangladesh in particular has been pushing Myanmar to stem the tide of refugees, who are straining resources in the already poor nation. The current exodus is in addition to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who fled prior violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the Muslim ethnic group has faced decades of persecution and discrimination.
The latest violence began when a Rohingya insurgent group launched deadly attacks on security posts Aug. 25, prompting Myanmar's military to launch "clearance operations." Those fleeing have described indiscriminate attacks by security forces and Buddhist mobs. The government has blamed the Rohingya, saying they set fire to their own homes, but the U.N. and others accuse it of ethnic cleansing.
Though Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said that the security forces have ceased clearance operation since early September, witnesses say Rohingya villages continue to be burned in the region.
In a statement Friday, Amnesty International said Myanmar's security forces have engaged in an unlawful and disproportionate campaign of violence against the Rohingya. It urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take urgent steps to stop its member state from committing acts of violence against Rohingya.
Also Friday, the Norwegian Refugee Council called on Myanmar authorities to allow aid groups access to those in need in northern Rakhine state.
"The Norwegian Refugee Council is standing by, waiting for the authorities to allow us to move into areas where we fear many people may be stranded without clean water, food or shelter," Jan Egeland, the group's secretary-general, said in a statement. "Humanitarians must have access to help these people without one more minute of delay."