Yangon, Myanmar — For generations, Rohingya Muslims have called Myanmar home. Now, in what appears to be a systematic purge, the minority ethnic group is being wiped off the map.
After a series of attacks by Muslim militants last month, security forces and allied mobs retaliated by burning down thousands of Rohingya homes in the predominantly Buddhist nation.
More than 500,000 people — roughly half their population — have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in the past year, most of them in the last three weeks.
And they are still leaving, piling into wooden boats that take them to sprawling, monsoon-drenched refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In a speech Tuesday, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not address a U.N. statement that the army has engaged in a “textbook case” of ethnic cleansing. Instead, she told concerned diplomats that while many villages were destroyed, more than half were still intact.
U.N. General-Secretary Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly on Tuesday that “I take note” of Suu Kyi’s speech.
“This is the worst crisis in Rohingya history,” said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which works to improve conditions for the ethnic minority, citing the monumental size and speed of the exodus. “Security forces have been burning villages one by one, in a very systematic way. And it’s still ongoing.”
Using a network of monitors, Lewa and her agency are meticulously documenting tracts of villages that have been partially or completely burned down in three townships in northern Rakhine state, where the vast majority of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya once lived. It’s a painstaking task because there are hundreds of them, and information is almost impossible to verify because the army has blocked access to the area. Satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday shows massive swaths of scorched landscape and the near total destruction of 214 villages.
The Arakan Project said Tuesday that almost every tract of villages in Maungdaw township suffered some burning, and that almost all Rohingya had abandoned the area.
Sixteen of the 21 Rohingya villages in the northern part of Rathedaung township — in eight village tracts — were targeted. Three camps for Rohingya who were displaced in communal riots five years ago also were torched.
Buthidaung, to the east, so far has been largely spared. It is the only township where security operations appear limited to areas where the attacks by Rohingya militants, which triggered the ongoing crackdown, occurred. Separated from the other Rohingya townships by mountains, and with more Buddhists and more soldiers, Buthidaung has historically had fewer tensions.
In her speech, Suu Kyi noted that most Rohingya villages did not suffer violence, and said the government would look into “why are they not at each other’s throats in these particular areas.” Rohingya refugees angrily viewed that as the government deflecting blame for attacks by its own forces.
The Rohingya have had a long and troubled history in Myanmar, where many in the country’s 60 million people look on them with disdain.
Though members of the ethnic minority first arrived generations ago, Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982, denying them almost all rights and rendering them stateless. They cannot travel freely, practice their religion, or work as teachers or doctors, and they have little access to medical care, food or education.
The U.N. has labeled the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted religious minorities.
Still, if it weren’t for their safety, many would rather live in Myanmar than be forced to another country that doesn’t want them.
“Now we can’t even buy plastic to make a shelter,” said 32-year-old Kefayet Ullah of the camp in Bangladesh where he and his family are struggling to get from one day to the next.
In Rakhine, they had land for farming and a small shop. Now they have nothing.
“Our heart is crying for our home,” he said, tears streaming down his face.
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