(BANGKOK) — Journalists saw new fires burning Thursday in a Myanmar village that had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims, and pages ripped from Islamic texts that were left on the ground. That intensifies doubts about government claims that members of the persecuted minority have been destroying their own homes.
About two dozen journalists saw the fire in Gawdu Zara village in northern Rakhine state on a government-controlled trip. The U.N. says about 146,000 Rohingya in the region have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in less than two weeks since Rohingya insurgents attacked police outposts in Gawdu Zara and several others Aug. 25.
The military has said nearly 400 people, most of them described as insurgents, have died in clashes and that troops have conducted "clearance operations." It blames insurgents for setting villages on fire, without offering proof. Rohingya say the fires were set by troops and Buddhist mobs who attacked them and drove them from their homes.
Reporters saw no Rohingya in any of the five largely destroyed villages they were allowed to tour Thursday, making it unlikely they could have been responsible for the 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 Quran, 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-smoldering 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 of them 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."
Myanmar refers to Rohingya as Bengalis, contending they migrated illegally from Bangladesh, though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has dismissed the Rohingya crisis as a misinformation campaign.
According to her office, Suu Kyi 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."
With the influx pushing existing Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh to the brink, the government has pledged to build at least one more. The International Organization for Migration has pleaded for $18 million 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.
U.N. agencies said they were distributing food to new arrivals, about 80 percent of whom were women and children, joining about 100,000 who had already been sheltering in Bangladesh after fleeing earlier convulsions of violence in majority-Buddhist Myanmar.
"We've not had something on this scale here in many years," said Pavlo Kolovos, the Bangladesh mission leader for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. "Our teams are seeing streams of people arriving destitute and extremely traumatized," including many in need of urgent medical care for violence-related injuries, severe infections or childbirth complications, he said in a statement.
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 1 million Rohingya were living in northern Rakhine state, but aid agencies have been unable to access the area since.
"We are unable to reach the 28,000 children to whom we were previously providing psychosocial care or the more than 4,000 children who were treated for malnutrition in Buthidaung and Maungdaw" townships in Rakhine, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said. "Our clean water and sanitation work has been suspended, as have school repairs that were under way."
Turkey said Myanmar agreed to allow its aid officials to enter Rakhine state with a ton of food and goods for Rohingya, and that its foreign minister would visit a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar on Thursday.