Fires rage in Rakhine as Myanmar army blames Rohingya for mosque blast

A house is engulfed by fire in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state in northern Myanmar on Sept 7, 2017.
A house is engulfed by fire in Gawdu Tharya village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state in northern Myanmar on Sept 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SITTWE, MYANMAR (AFP) - Myanmar's army chief on Saturday (Sept 23) blamed Rohinyga militants for an explosion outside a mosque in Rakhine state, as a rights group accused the military of starting fires in the region to prevent refugees from returning.

The unrest comes just days after Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that the Myanmar government was taking effective measures to curb the violence in the western Rakhine state, and ensuring that innocent civilians are not harmed.

She made the remarks on Wednesday (Sept 20) in an interview by Chinese media, including Xinhua, in Naypyitaw, a day following her speech on the government's national reconciliation and peace efforts. She said the government has issued very strict instructions to the security forces to respect the rights of the people and to make sure that excessive force was not used.

Suu Kyi noted that the most difficult challenge in the Rakhine issue is to change people's mindset, to make them understand it is much better to live in harmony and try to understand each other, rather than to fight each other and work on the basis of fear and hatred, Xinhua reported on Saturday.

The government is continuing to provide aid to the people in Rakhine, Suu Kyi said and added that Myanmar appreciated China's recognition that the problems facing Myanmar are extremely complex and cannot be solved overnight.

On Saturday, Myanmar's commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing posted a statement on Facebook, saying Rohingya militants planted a "home-made mine" that exploded in between a mosque and madrasa in Rakhine's Buthidaung township on Friday.

The army chief accused the militants of trying to drive out around 700 hundred villagers who had remained in Mi Chaung Zay - an argument analysts have said makes little sense for a group whose power depends on the networks it has built across Rohingya communities.

"As our villagers did not want to leave their homes, the terrorists blew up the bomb during the prayer time as a way of terrorising the villagers," the army chief's statement said.

"It is the act of Arsa terrorist group," it added, using an acronym for the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army whose raids on police posts in August triggered the military backlash.

No one was reported injured in the explosion.

With the government blocking access to the conflict zone, it is difficult to verify the swirl of claims and counterclaims over who is driving the unrest, which has not only forced over 430,000 Rohingya refugees to flee for Bangladesh in under a month, but also displaced tens of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus.

The army claims it is targeting Rohingya militants who attacked police posts on Aug 25. But its operation has been so sweeping and brutal that the UN says it likely amounts to "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya Muslim minority, a group reviled by many in the mainly Buddhist country.

Rights groups say there is overwhelming evidence that the army is using its crackdown on militants to systematically purge the 1.1-million strong stateless Rohingya from its borders.

On Friday, Amnesty International said new videos and satellite imagery confirmed fires were still ripping through Rohingya villages, scores of which have already been burned to the ground.

"Not satisfied with simply forcing Rohingya from their homes, authorities seem intent on ensuring they have no homes to return to," said Tirana Hasan from Amnesty.

Human Rights Watch on Saturday also echoed earlier allegations that Myanmar security forces were laying landmines along the Bangladesh border crossed by the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seeking sanctuary.

"The dangers faced by thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Burma are deadly enough without adding landmines to the mix," said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's South Asia director.

"The Burmese military needs to stop using these banned weapons, which kill and maim without distinction."