More than a thousand civilians have fled their homes, though the full impact of an ongoing counterterrorism operation is still unknown
Humanitarian workers in western Burma’s remote and impoverished Maungdaw town have had no access to nearby villages for more than a week, since the military began counteroperations following a deadly attack on border police that has been attributed to suspected Islamic militants.
On Oct. 9, hundreds of armed assailants reportedly attacked three police border posts in the Maungdaw area of Arakan state, also known as Rakhine, near the border with Bangladesh. Nine policemen and eight of the attackers were killed in the coordinated attacks, while two other suspects were apprehended alive, according to the government of Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar.
The attacks have sparked speculation that some members of the Rohingya community, a stateless Muslim minority that is considered one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, could be beginning to fight back against years of violent oppression in the predominantly Buddhist country — possibly with support from foreign terrorist organizations.
The government says the coordinated ambush was carried out by a militant Muslim group, the Aqa Mul Mujahidin organization, which it linked to another militant group, the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) — although the latter is widely believed to have been defunct for decades.
According to an Oct. 11 statement by Burma’s Ministry of Information, Aqa Mul Mujahidin is led by Havistoohar, a 45-year-old alleged Muslim extremist who it says attended a six-month training with the Taliban in Pakistan. The ministry also alleged that his extremist group has received funding from the Middle East.
Read more: The Rohingya, Burma’s Forgotten Muslims
Since the attacks last week, police and military personnel have been deployed to secure the area and find the perpetrators, causing a sharp spike in security in the already heavily monitored and remote township.
While security forces have been dispatched to arrest alleged militant jihadists, the uptick has caused grave concern that civilians could face serious abuses by authorities, as the group has suffered a history of persecution.
Confidential research obtained by TIME, which was compiled by a local Rohingya network and has not been independently verified, claims that more than 50 Rohingya have been killed in Maungdaw since Oct. 10, and two “mass graves” have been discovered. The research said the military had “set fire several villages in Maungdaw including Du Dan village, Ngan Cahung village, Nga Sar Chuu village, Pyaung Pyit village.”
Additionally, more than 150 shops and 90 homes were said to have been burned down in another village, Kyet Yoe Pyin, causing many civilians to flee, the research alleged.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said on Monday that its movement has been restricted for more than a week as the military carried out counteroperations.
“We don’t yet have a full picture of the humanitarian impact of recent events in Rakhine state nor the numbers of people displaced or affected,” Pierre Peron, a spokesman for UNOCHA in Burma, tells TIME. “This is because we don’t have access to the affected areas to assess humanitarian needs.”
UNOCHA said at least 800 people are believed to have arrived in the state capital Sittwe, where they are sheltering in monasteries. At least 1,200 others sought shelter in a school in the town of Buthidaung.
Humanitarian assistance in the area included mobile health clinics and nutrition programs, which prior to Oct. 9 were delivered to all communities — the Rohingya, who are the majority in the township, as well as ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, who are the majority in the Arakan state.
No one knows how many people live in the approximately 580-sq.-mi. Maungdaw township, because a 2014 census did not include Rohingya and others living in the volatile region. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Burma, and are referred to as Bengali because many in the government and the country more broadly view them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
“I am very concerned about the security and protection of Rohingya and Rakhine communities,” Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya peace activist based in Rangoon, tells TIME. “The government should give protection for all people.”
On Monday, Burma’s Minister of Information Pe Myint briefed reporters in the nation’s capital Naypyidaw on the findings of a government delegation that visited the area last week.
The minister said the delegation listened to local elders, abbots, Islamic leaders, politicians and civil society in the area, who advised them to strengthen police presence, implement a 1982 citizenship law and create a people’s militia of armed civilians, according to the state-backed newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar, “to strictly check the movement of people and to restore the rule of law in villages.”
Most of Burma’s approximately 1.1 million Rohingya live in Arakan state, which in 2012 was the site of a spate of deadly riots that left more than 100 dead and some 140,000 others displaced, most of them Rohingya.
Many of the displaced still live in squalid camps where they are denied freedom of movement, education and health care. The situation is so dire that tens of thousands have fled in rickety boats to seek refuge in Thailand or Malaysia, many of them dying during the dangerous sea voyage.
As per Monday’s press conference, the official death toll since Oct. 9 is 44: five Burmese army soldiers; nine policemen; and 30 suspected attackers, including 28 men and two women. The government said 29 suspected assailants are now detained and under interrogation in two locations.