Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in a Myanmar village abandoned by Rohingya Muslims and pages ripped from Islamic texts left on the ground, intensifying doubts about government claims that members of the persecuted minority have been destroying their own homes.
About two dozen journalists saw the fires in Gawdu Zara village in northern Rakhine state on a government-controlled trip.
About 164,000 Rohingya from the area have fled across the border into Bangladesh in less than two weeks since Aug. 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police outposts in Gawdu Zara and several other villages, the UN refugee agency said Thursday.
The military has said nearly 400 people, mostly Rohingya, have died in clashes and that troops were conducting "clearance operations." It blames insurgents for setting the villages on fire, without offering proof.
Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, also known as Burma, have described large-scale violence perpetrated by Myanmar troops and Buddhist mobs — setting fire to their homes, spraying bullets indiscriminately, stabbing civilians and ordering them to abandon their homes or be killed.
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Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has dismissed the Rohingya crisis as a misinformation campaign.
According to her office, she said such misinformation helps promote the interests of "terrorists," a reference to the Rohingya insurgents who attacked security posts on Aug. 25.
The crisis response director for Amnesty International called Suu Kyi's response "unconscionable" and former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu urged her to intervene to stop the persecution of the Rohingya.
In an open letter to a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tutu said it is "incongruous for a symbol of righteousness" to lead a country where violence against the Rohingya is being carried out.
"My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep," Tutu says. The letter was sent Thursday to Suu Kyi through Myanmar's embassy in South Africa.
On Thursday, Suu Kyi told reporters her government was working to improve security and livelihoods for Rohingya, but that "it's a little unreasonable to expect us to resolve everything in 18 months" since her administration took office.
On the Myanmar side of the border, reporters saw no Rohingya in any of the five destroyed villages they were allowed to tour Thursday, making it unlikely they could have been responsible for the new fires.
An ethnic Rakhine villager who emerged from the smoke said police and Rakhine Buddhists had set the fires. The villager ran off before he could be asked anything else.
No police were seen in the village beyond those who were accompanying the journalists. But about 10 Rakhine men with machetes were seen there. They looked nervous; the only one who spoke said he had just arrived and didn't know how the fires started.
Among the buildings on fire was a madrassa, an Islamic school. Copies of books with texts from the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, were torn up and thrown outside. A nearby mosque was not burned.
Another village the journalists visited, Ah Lel Than Kyaw, was blackened, obliterated and deserted. Cattle and dogs wandered through the still-smouldering remains.
Local police officer Aung Kyaw Moe said 18 people were killed in the village when the violence began last month. "From our side, there was one immigration officer dead, and we found 17 dead bodies from the enemy side," he said.
He said the fires were set Aug. 25, though some continued to burn Thursday. Virtually all buildings in the village seen by journalists had been burned, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles that fleeing villagers left behind. A mosque was also damaged.
Columns of smoke could be seen rising in the distance, and distant gunshots could be heard.
"They burned their own houses and ran away," Aung Kyaw Moe said. "We didn't see who actually burned them because we had to take care of the security for our outpost.… But when the houses were burned, Bengalis were the only ones in the village."
Buddhist-majority Myanmar refers to Rohingya as Bengalis, contending they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Burning the homes of Rohingya can make it less likely they will return. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were driven from their homes in another wave of violence in 2012. Many are now confined to camps, while the land they once held is either vacant or occupied by Buddhist squatters.
Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and blogger based in Europe with contacts in northern Rakhine, said that according to witnesses, the Myanmar military, border guard police and Rakhine villagers came to Ah Lel Than Kyaw and burned the houses from Monday to Wednesday.
On Aug. 25, he said, young men with swords and knives tried to attack the border guard outpost in Aley Than Kyaw but failed. The authorities took away all Buddhist villagers, and many Rohingya villagers fled on their own.
Nay San Lwin said the remaining villagers left after the military warned them they would be shot if they didn't leave.
With Rohingya fleeing by the thousands daily across the border, pushing existing camps in Bangladesh to the brink, the government in Dhaka pledged to build at least one more. The International Organization for Migration has pleaded for $18 million US in foreign aid to help feed and shelter tens of thousands now packed into makeshift settlements or stranded in a no man's land between the two countries' borders.
UN agencies said they were distributing food to new arrivals, about 80 per cent of whom were women and children, joining about 100,000 who had already been sheltering in Bangladesh after fleeing earlier convulsions of violence in Myanmar.
Aid workers said many were arriving with violence-related injuries, severe infections or childbirth complications.
With so many Rohingya fleeing, it's unclear how many remain in Myanmar amid reports of soldiers burning villages and killing civilians. Before the recent violence, aid experts had estimated about one million Rohingya were living in northern Rakhine state, but aid agencies have been unable to access the area since.
Turkey said Myanmar agreed to allow its aid officials to enter Rakhine state with a ton of food and goods for Rohingya. Its first lady and foreign minister also visited a refugee camp in Bangladesh on Thursday and pledged continuing support for the Rohingya.