Northern Rakhine has been ravaged by communal violence since Rohingya insurgents staged deadly raids on police posts on August 25, unleashing an army crackdown that has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The vast majority – more than 430,000 – are Rohingya Muslims who have fled across the border to Bangladesh from a military campaign which the UN says likely amounts to ethnic cleansing of the stateless minority.
But tens of thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and the region’s small population of Hindus, have also been internally displaced, saying they were attacked by Rohingya militants.
Yesterday (Sept 24) the army said it had discovered two mud pits filled with 28 Hindu corpses, including women and children, outside the village of Ye Baw Kyaw in northern Rakhine.
“The security troops continue searching for remaining Hindu people around the places of the pits,” said a statement posted on army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook page today, blaming Rohingya militants for the killings.
Displaced Hindus from the area said last week that Rohingya fighters stormed into their communities on August 25, killing many and taking others into the forest.
They showed a list of 102 people from two villages – Ye Baw Kyaw, where the bodies were found, and Taung Ywar – feared dead by distraught relatives, who wept as they described the bloodshed.
A Hindu community leader in the area, Ni Maul, confirmed that the search was going on.
“Soldiers and police are here with us to find the rest of the bodies around this area,” he said, adding that authorities are still working to identify the 28 corpses exhumed yesterday.
With the government blocking access to the conflict zone, it is difficult to verify the maelstrom of accusations that have further fuelled ethnic hatreds in Rakhine.
But the army has steadfastly blamed violence on the Rohingya – a Muslim minority it has been trying for years to eject from Myanmar – while highlighting the suffering of other ethnic groups swept up in the violence.
The focal point of the unrest, northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, was once home to a fragile mosaic of religious communities, dominated by the Rohingya.
Vast swathes of the border region are now completely emptied of Muslim residents, with nearly 40% of Rohingya villages abandoned in under a month.
Frightened and dispossessed ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus, who have largely fled south, say they see no future alongside their former Muslim neighbours.
“I do not dare go back to the village,” said Kyaw Kyaw Naing, one of hundreds of displaced Hindus sheltering in a derelict football stadium in Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe.
“We still do not know yet how many of those dead bodies include relatives from our camp,” added the 34-year-old, whose Hindu name is Shu Bown.
In Bangladesh, relief agencies are struggling to meet the vast needs of the Rohingya cramming into shanties in Cox’s Bazar, an influx the UN has described as the “fastest and most urgent refugee emergency in the world”.
Yet there is little sympathy for the Muslim minority inside Myanmar, where Islamophobia has been stewing for years among the overwhelmingly Buddhist population.
Even before the latest eruption of violence, the 1.1 million-strong Rohingya were relegated to precarious and impoverished lives, with hundreds of thousands trapped in refugee camps following previous waves of persecution.
Those outside the camps were subject to laws that stripped them of citizenship and severely restricted their movements and access to jobs, schooling and healthcare.
Analysts say the repression helped give rise to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, whose raids plunged the region into crisis.