COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh — In a hospital bed in a strange country far from home, Mohammad Hasan cried out in pain and begged his son to call for help.
Hasan said he fled his village in northern Burma recently as the military and the local Buddhist civilians torched a nearby village. As the 70-year-old and his family approached the Bangladesh border after an arduous days-long journey, he felt a small explosion and the ground move beneath his feet. Shrapnel ripped a gaping wound in his right leg.
Hasan and his family think he tripped a small explosive device planted in the grass: a land mine.
More than 300,000 members of Burma’s Rohingya ethnic minority have poured into Bangladesh in recent days, after a brutal military crackdown that the U.N. human rights chief has said is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, with hundreds dead and thousands of villages burned to the ground.
[‘A textbook example of ethnic cleansing’]
Now, the Rohingya refugees have a new fear — land mines planted at the border. Human rights groups allege that the devices were placed there by the Burmese military, which has long used the explosive devices to quell counterinsurgencies.
Shaheen Abdur Rahman Choudhury, the head of Sadar Hospital in Cox’s Bazar, the biggest town near the border influx, said doctors have seen several patients in recent days with wounds consistent with those from land mines, most of whom had been taken to a larger medical college hospital in Chittagong for treatment.
Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said in an interview Wednesday that the government has “reliable information” that Burma’s security forces “laid land mines across a section of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.” Burma is also known as Myanmar.
A spokesman for Burma’s government, however, countered that it was “very difficult to verify” who was planting the explosive devices at the border and suggested that it may have been done by the Rohingya insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA.
Rohingya fighters from ARSA attacked dozens of police posts and an army camp on Aug. 25, killing 12 and triggering the cataclysmic military response.
On Saturday, the human rights group Amnesty International said that land mines have injured at least three civilians, including two children, and reportedly have killed at least one man, and called their introduction into the crisis "another low in what is already a horrific situation in Rakhine State."
“With Bangladesh government’s cooperation, both sides can verify whose mines by using expert teams,” Zaw Htay, Burma’s presidential spokesman, said Wednesday in an email.
A Burmese military source told the Reuters news agency that land mines were laid along the border in the 1990s to prevent trespassing and that the military had since tried to remove them. The source added that none had been planted recently.
The Burmese government also announced Wednesday that Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was canceling a speech at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York to stay home and deal with the Rohingya crisis.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991 for her fight for democracy in Burma, has come under intensifying criticism in recent days for her handling of the refugee crisis, in which the number fleeing from Burma into Bangladesh has now topped 370,000, according to the United Nations.
[Washington begins to sour on Suu Kyi amid mounting violence]
About 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims live in Buddhist-majority Burma. They have long endured a curtailment of their rights, including denial of citizenship and restrictions on movement and access to employment.
Clashes with Buddhist villagers in 2012 resulted in more than 100,000 Rohingya being confined in camps, a humanitarian crisis that has festered. Critics have charged that Suu Kyi has done little to address the problem since her National League for Democracy won the country’s first largely democratic election in 2015, but she has little power over the country’s generals, who still control the security forces.
Chris Lewa, an activist with the Arakan Project, said this week that it appeared that Buddhist villagers were joining military forces to torch Rohingya homes, and satellite photos showed that the burning continued over the weekend. Large clouds of black smoke were plainly visible over the sea route corridor to Bangladesh on Wednesday.
“It’s total devastation,” Lewa said. “The villages are empty, and every house is burned.”
Burma’s military and its insurgent groups have used land mines in their armed conflict for decades and continue to do so, rights groups say.
The military typically used the explosive devices to deter villagers from returning after their home areas had been “cleared” in searches for counterinsurgents.
But long-standing rebel groups in states along the border with Thailand and China have also used them to strike back at the military or protect their lucrative gem mines.
Hasan, who traveled from the Kumirkhali village in Maungdaw township in northern Rakhine state, said his son was forced to carry him in a bamboo basket for the rest of the journey. It was several days before they made it to the hospital, Hasan said, and now he fears he will lose his leg.
Mushfique Wadud contributed to this report.
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