Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday accused Rohingya fighters of burning down homes and using child soldiers during a recent surge in violence in troubled Rakhine state, allegations denied by the militants themselves.
The impoverished western state neighbouring Bangladesh has become a crucible of religious hatred focused on the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, who are reviled and perceived as illegal immigrants in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Despite years of persecution and government restrictions, the Rohingya largely eschewed violence.
But sporadic armed clashes have erupted since October when a previously unknown Rohingya militant group staged a series of attacks on security forces, sparking a massive security crackdown by Myanmar’s military which the UN believes may have amounted to ethnic cleansing.
A brutal round of fresh fighting has been raging since Friday when militants staged new coordinated ambushes.
More than 100 people, including some 80 militants, have been killed. Thousands of Rohingya civilians have fled towards Bangladesh while local Buddhists and Hindus have sought sanctuary in towns and monasteries away from the clashes.
Both sides have accused each other of committing fresh atrocities in recent days, accusations that are difficult to verify because the fighting is taking place in inaccessible villages.
The government department directly run by Suu Kyi — the State Counsellor’s Office — has released a flurry of statements through its Facebook account, including grim pictures of civilians allegedly shot dead by militants.
“Terrorists have been fighting security forces by using children at the frontline (and) setting fire (to) minority-ethnic villages,” the office said it its latest statement on Monday.
The statement said there should be “no concerns for civilians who are not linked with extremist terrorists”. It called on Rohingya to cooperate with security forces and not brandish “sticks, swords and weapons” when security forces approached.
The militant group behind the fighting — the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) — hit back with its own allegations on Monday.
“While raiding Rohingya villages, the Burmese brutal military soldiers bring along with them groups of Rakhine (Buddhist) extremists to attack Rohingya villagers, loot Rohingyas’ properties and later burn down Rohingya houses,” the group said via its Twitter account @ARSA_Official.
Myanmar’s assurances for Rohingya civilians appear to have had little effect with a fresh influx of refugees heading to Bangladesh. Some have been turned back by Bangladeshi authorities.
Rohingya who made it through on Sunday described Buddhist mobs and security forces shooting people dead and burning down homes. They said many Rohingya men and youths stayed behind to fight.
Myanmar’s government made similar claims that Rohingya were burning their own homes when violence first broke out in October.
Refugees accused Myanmar’s military of engaging in scorched earth retribution, as did a number of rights groups who used satellite imagery to track the fires.
Activists and supporters on both sides of the sectarian divide have a history of posting false images and footage online.