Bangkok — Myanmar’s government and advocates for the country’s Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority traded charges Sunday of killing civilians, burning down buildings and planting land mines, as clashes that began last week when insurgents launched attacks against police posts continued.
An announcement posted online by the office of the country’s leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, said the death toll from the violence that started Thursday night had reached 96, mostly alleged Rohingya attackers but also 12 security personnel.
The announcement was the first by the government to list civilians among the dead — six people identified as Hindu said to have been killed by the insurgents.
Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but about 1 million Muslim Rohingya live in the northern part of Rakhine, the western state where the violence is taking place.
Advocates for the Rohingya suggest many more civilians have died in army attacks on villages, but they have not given a total. They also say the attacks have caused villagers to flee to the mountains for shelter or to try to cross the border into Bangladesh.
Senior Rakhine state officials who visited the troubled area said Sunday evening that government forces were trying to restore peace.
“We are trying our best to bring stability and now we can see the areas are stabilizing,” said Nyi Pu, the state’s chief minister. “But anything can happen at any time, so I can’t say what will happen.”
Dr. Win Myat Aye, union minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, said: “We are now focusing strongly on the security matters to make the area more secure. And we are also we are increasing our military strength.”
The two men spoke to reporters in the state capital, Sittwe, in the southern part of the state, far from the fighting. They also said the government was trying to protect members of international aid organizations in the area, or evacuate them if they desired. The government has allowed only a limited number of foreign aid organizations to work in northern Rakhine state, and due to long-standing communal tensions, some Buddhists resent their helping Rohingya.
Witnesses and refugees on the Bangladesh border said Sunday that the situation there was tense, with thousands of Rohingya trying to flee Myanmar but unable to leave. Witnesses said they heard the sound of gunshots. Bangladeshi villagers said they could see military helicopters hovering in the Myanmar sky.
Several hundred Rohingya got stuck in a “no man’s land” at one border point in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district, barred from moving farther by Bangladeshi border guards. Lt. Col. Manzurul Hasan Khan of Border Guards Bangladesh said they cordoned off about 1,000 Rohingya after they attempted to enter Bangladesh.
Still, more than 2,000 Rohingya entered Bangladesh overnight through two points at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district, said Jalal Ahmed, a local government official at the Kharangakhali border point.
A Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, took responsibility for Thursday night’s attacks on more than 25 locations, saying they were in defense of Rohingya communities that had been brutalized by government forces.
Suu Kyi’s office accused the insurgents of “torching police outposts and monasteries, killing innocent people and planting mines.”
ARSA, meanwhile, accused the army of using civilians as human shields.
Clashes were continuing on Sunday, with witnesses contacted by phone in the northern Rakhine town of Maungdaw saying they could hear gunshots.
Independent confirmation of the situation is difficult because the government bars journalists from the area.
Suu Kyi’s office issued an official warning to media on Sunday, saying “some media” have been referring to the group as “insurgents” instead of “terrorists.” On Friday, the government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, which means most contacts with it are illegal. Sunday’s announcement specifically said “we warn the media to avoid writing in support of the group.”
The government refuses to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate native ethnic minority, calling them Bengalis to reflect the position that they are mostly illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Most Rohingya are denied citizenship and its rights.
The Rohingya have long faced severe discrimination and were the targets of violence in 2012 that killed hundreds and drove about 140,000 people - predominantly Rohingya - from their homes to camps for the internally displaced, where most remain.
Suu Kyi has called Thursday’s attacks “a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine state.” The attacks were also generally condemned by Western nations and rights groups, who also warned the government against violent retaliation.
The clashes were deadlier than an attack by the militants on three border posts last October that killed nine policemen and set off months of brutal counterinsurgency operations by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya communities in Rakhine state. Human rights groups accused the army of carrying out massive human rights abuses, including killing, rape and burning down more than 1,000 homes and other buildings.
The army’s abuses fueled further resentment toward the government among the Muslim Rohingya. ARSA took advantage of the resentment by stepping up recruitment of members.