SITTWE, Burma — The Hindu woman wept as she vowed never to return home, where she said Rohingya militants slaughtered her son, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters in August.
“They killed my family,” Halu Bar Hla, 70, said through tears at a camp for internally displaced people in western Burma. “I will not go back. I will die if I go back to my village. They will slit my throat.”
Hla’s account illustrates the complexity of the Rohingya crisis, in which Buddhists and minorities such as Hindus claim that militant Rohingya have carried out atrocities against them even as a brutal military “clearance operation” has sent 600,000 Rohingya Muslims across the border into Bangladesh.
The U.N. human rights chief has called the Burmese military's crackdown a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," and Burma's democratically elected government and Aung San Suu Kyi, its de facto leader, have been widely condemned during the exodus.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Suu Kyi early Wednesday in Burma. At a joint briefing after the meeting, Tillerson said he was concerned about "credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by [Burma's] security forces and vigilantes." He said that the United States will consider targeted sanctions against individuals but that he will not advise broad-based economic sanctions at this time. The Burmese military issued an internal report this week that exonerated its soldiers of any wrongdoing.
Interviews with monks, politicians and refugees in this port city demonstrate how difficult it will be for Burmese and Bangladeshi officials to come up with a plan for the Rohingya to return to Rakhine state. Leaders from the Buddhist community and Suu Kyi’s government deny that atrocities against Rohingya have taken place at all, saying that the refugees fled in fear after Rohingya militants attacked police posts in late August.
"The extremists incited villagers to go away saying the Burma army would come and kill them. They killed Hindus and other ethnic minorities. We could not find the death of any Muslim," said Win Htein, a top adviser to Suu Kyi. "There is no genocide or ethnic cleansing."
Sittwe is about as close as journalists can freely get to northern Rakhine state, now sealed off by the military, where the militants attacked on Aug. 25. Behind the military cordon, the violence has ebbed. Villagers and aid workers allowed entry to that area describe ghostly scenes of burned Rohingya villages, largely devoid of people. Estimates vary, but 100,000 to 200,000 Rohingya remain, with food and medical supplies running low.
“Even with the destruction, you can see a bicycle that’s just left. It’s a very strange feeling, as if life has stopped. The sense of emptiness is quite striking,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the head of the Burma delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Red Cross groups — the only outside aid workers permitted to enter — have distributed food and cash assistance to 86,000 since late August.
A Rohingya grocer in the town of Maungdaw said by telephone that security is tight and that the Rohingya are not permitted to travel.
“We’re trapped and surrounded by military,” said Ko Hla Win, 34. They are surviving because some Buddhists are secretly selling them food, he said.
Elsewhere, state workers began harvesting 70,000 acres of rice paddies the Rohingya left behind, a spokesman said. They are also preparing two camps to house returning refugees.
It has been more than two months since the August attacks triggered a crackdown that left more than 280 villages burned — according to a Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite photos — and scores dead. Survivors have alleged widespread human rights violations by the military, including rapes and mass executions. Witness accounts have been difficult to verify because the government has denied U.N. human rights investigators and others access to the area.
The exodus has riveted international attention on the plight of more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims long denied citizenship and other basic rights in Burma, a majority-Buddhist nation of 51 million people in Southeast Asia that is also known as Myanmar. The country held largely democratic elections in 2015, but the military still controls security, key ministries and lucrative state-owned enterprises.
At the same time the Rohingya fled, more than 30,000 Hindus, Buddhists and ethnic minorities were also displaced, with some fleeing south to Sittwe to take refuge in monasteries. In interviews, displaced villagers said they were afraid to return home because they feared the Rohingya insurgents whose attacks on police posts in their villages precipitated the crisis.
In the years since Burma became independent from Britain in 1948, the country's military regime gradually diminished the rights of the Rohingya, stripping them of citizenship and the right to vote. Today the government considers Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; they are called "Bengalis" here, or the slur "Kalar." Even the term "Rohingya" is anathema; Suu Kyi herself won't use it because it is inflammatory, she told The Washington Post in an interview last year.
In 2012, the rape of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men triggered widespread communal violence after which more than 100,000 Rohingya were confined to detention camps. At the same time, a movement of hard-line Buddhist nationalism gathered steam, led by radical monks.
Shortly thereafter, a group of Saudi-based Rohingya expatriates formed the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, according to a December report from the International Crisis Group. Its leaders eventually traveled to the area to recruit and surreptitiously train villagers in guerrilla war tactics, the report said.
Maung Oo Than Tin, 25, a Buddhist college student, recalled that one of his best school friends, a Rohingya, stopped speaking to him after the 2012 violence and later left the country. About three months ago, the former friend messaged him ominously on Facebook, “We are going to kill you.”
Grocery store owner Sander Moe, 25, a member of the ethnic Marma community, which also allegedly was threatened by militants, said she believed that most of her Rohingya neighbors joined ARSA last year after four village men were recruited to be local leaders. They trained volunteers in the woods and exhorted Rohingya to stop patronizing Buddhist businesses, causing her sales to drop from $20 to $3 a day.
She said locals made up the mob that attacked a police station across the street from her home in August, armed with long knives and grenades. In the crowd, she could discern the mullahs, a stocky rice farmer and even an 8-year-old boy. She and others fled to a monastery, which was besieged for several days before the villagers were able to escape to Sittwe.
She now fears returning home.
“I don’t want to go back,” she said, adding that she worries she may be raped.
The story of Hindu villagers allegedly killed en masse by Rohingya militants is more complicated than the experiences of others who allege violence by the insurgents. In late September and early October, government spokesman Zaw Htay repeatedly posted on Facebook about the alleged attack on Hindus by "extremist terrorists." A group of journalists was flown to view 45 Hindus allegedly exhumed from a mass grave. Human Rights Watch accused the government of "playing politics" with the dead.
But now the survivors are languishing. More than 500 Hindus, including Halu Bar Hla, remain camped in squalid conditions under the bleachers in Sittwe’s soccer stadium. The government has not provided food rations since Nov. 2, they say, and they are surviving on rice donations from monks and other well-wishers in town.