RANGOON, Burma — Hundreds of people have died in western Burma in clashes between insurgents and security forces, a dramatic escalation of the Rohingya crisis that has haunted the country’s transition to democracy and tainted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s legacy.
The increasing death toll follows reports that tens of thousands more Rohingya Muslims have been displaced in the conflict.
In some of the worst fighting in decades, Burma’s army says 370 fighters tied to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) have been killed since the group first moved on dozens of police posts in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 25. Fifteen members of Burma’s security forces and civil service and 14 non-Muslim civilians died in the attacks and ensuing clashes.
Though it emerged only a year ago with origins in the diaspora, ARSA claims it fights for the more than 1 million stateless Rohingya Muslims in Burma, also known as Myanmar. The government calls it a terrorist organization.
The Rohingya, most of whom reside in Rakhine state on the border with Bangladesh, are deeply unpopular in Burma, which is 90 percent Buddhist. The government insists they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite generational roots. Burma disputes the term “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” or “Muslims in Rakhine state.”
A Rohingya activist and resident of Maungdaw — one of three towns affected by the fighting — who would be identified only as Anwar because of safety concerns, said villages were emptying as security forces burned homes. The government says residents are torching their own property.
He dismissed army assertions that the bulk of the dead are ARSA fighters.
“All the people they killed are not ARSA members,” Anwar said. He added that the death toll was expected to rise.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since the Aug. 25 attack, monitors say, while more than 10,000 Buddhists have been internally displaced within the state. Hundreds of ethnic minorities have also fled.
Members of the group Fortify Rights are in Bangladesh speaking with Rohingya refugees.
“Right now villages are burning, people are being killed, residents are fleeing for their lives,” Fortify Rights co-founder Matthew Smith said. “I will say it’s shocking, and some of the survivors are devastated by what they have experienced, what they have seen.”
Government officials say security forces are rescuing civilians and engaging militants.
Thousands of mostly Rohingya Muslims trying to escape are stuck between the two countries, according to Lt. Col. Manzurul Hassan Khan, a Border Guards Bangladesh official.
“They are under the open sky,” he said, adding that most are women and children.
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said Saturday that estimates of arrival numbers have not been verified but that a rough count by aid agencies is 60,000 since Aug. 25.
For more than 30 years, Bangladesh has been a destination for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seeking refuge. United Nations officials appealed to the Bangladeshi government to let new arrivals in.
Some died trying to get out of Burma. Bangladeshi officials have recovered the bodies of an estimated 42 Rohingya, mostly women and children, who drowned after their boats capsized during the journey, according to Cox’s Bazar deputy police chief Afruzul Haque Tutul.
Reports have circulated that Burmese security forces fired on fleeing refugees, but the government denies the allegations.
“No, no, no, absolutely not,” said Zaw Htay, spokesman for the office of Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto leader, who came to power last year after decades of military-backed rule.
“We are trying to control the situation and bring stability to the region,” he said.
Critics say Suu Kyi has failed to stand up for the Rohingya, while defenders argue she is hamstrung by a still-powerful military, which ruled Burma for half a century.
But when it comes to Rakhine state, the government and the military seem to be speaking with one voice.
Most international aid workers left northern Rakhine state after the government said that supplies from international aid groups, including USAID, had been found in raids on Rohingya fighter positions. The U.S. ambassador to Burma, Scot Marciel, called the implication that aid groups had supported ARSA “absurd.”
First called Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement, ARSA emerged last year after raids on police posts in October killed nine. The ensuing military operation resulted in nearly 90,000 Rohingya crossing into Bangladesh, allegations of possible crimes against humanity by Burmese security forces and a U.N. probe that Burma has blocked.
Although the region has experienced insurgencies since Burma became independent in 1948, the relationship between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists deteriorated significantly in 2012, just as the country was opening up to the outside world.
Myanmar’s national security adviser said this week that the new insurgent group is intent on establishing an Islamic state in Rakhine, but members counter that they only want rights enjoyed by all citizens in Burma.
“Our status as a recognized ethnic group within Myanmar must be restored,” a representative going by the name Abdullah told the website Asia Times this week.
The insurgents are crudely equipped, and the amount of public support they have is unclear. Raids have recovered small stockpiles of weapons, but videos of training sessions show only a few dozen scrawny and shabbily dressed fighters.
But the new burst of violence may rally broader support and will no doubt complicate efforts to find a way forward in Rakhine.
Days before the Aug. 25 attack, a commission led by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan presented a report with advice on how to find a “peaceful, fair and prosperous future” for the people of the state.
The government said it would set up a committee to review the advice. Officials say that is still in the works but the timeline has clearly changed.
Tin Maung Shwe, a spokesman for the Rakhine state government, said that “this is different” than what happened on Oct. 9.
He said thousands of people had taken part in the offensive.
“This is a terrorist attack,” he said. “They’re waiting for when our guns jam, then they will attack with swords.”
Muktadir Rashid in Dhaka and
Aung Naing Soe in Rangoon contributed to this report.