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Thousands Of Rohingya Flee Myanmar Amid Brutal Violence


In Bangladesh, a humanitarian crisis is looming. More than 73,000 people have entered the country in a little over a week. They're Rohingya, a Muslim minority in neighboring Myanmar, which refuses to acknowledge them as citizens. And they're fleeing a brutal crackdown by Myanmar's military. As Michael Sullivan reports now from Kuala Lumpur, the exodus and the violence show no sign of letting up.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If all this sounds familiar, there's a reason. Back in October and November, after Rohingya militants attacked several Myanmar security posts, the military response was swift, and it was brutal. Eighty thousand Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, bringing with them stories of arson, rape and mass killings by the military. But this - this is a lot worse, says Matthew Smith of the human rights group Fortify Rights.

MATTHEW SMITH: The scale of this is far more significant than what we saw last year.

SULLIVAN: Smith has been watching the exodus unfold in slow motion from the Bangladesh side of the Naf River.

SMITH: Certainly, the number of people that have been forcibly displaced is much greater. The brutality is unthinkable. They're killing children. They're killing women. They're killing the elderly. They're killing able-bodied men and boys. It's indiscriminate.

SULLIVAN: And, he says, there's another difference, one that hints at the long-simmering religious tension between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State.

SMITH: The authorities have enlisted local Rakhine Buddhist residents to join in the attack against the civilians. We're documenting how the army moves into the village, you know, is burning villages down. And at the same time, civilians armed with swords are coming in alongside the military and also killing women and children.

SULLIVAN: Nur Mohammad (ph) is a young Rohingya man I met in one of the refugee camps on the Bangladesh side back in March. He's asked that we change his name to protect his identity. He says he's been watching thousands of refugees cross the Naf River in the past few days, many, he says, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and not a lot of options for shelter, either.

NUR MOHAMMAD: Balukali and Kutupalong has a lot of people, sir. And, also, the newcomers are not getting places...

SULLIVAN: Two of the camps we visited a few months ago, he says, are now overflowing - new arrivals alongside those that came after the October and November wave of violence. Bangladesh continues to plead with the international community to help find permanent homes for some 400,000 Rohingya refugees it now hosts. It clearly doesn't want more. After the latest round of fighting began, Bangladesh border guards were turning away some of those fleeing the violence. But when I reached Fortify Rights' Matthew Smith late last night, he had kind words for the Bangladesh border guards' compassion for their fellow Muslims from across the river.

SMITH: Today, we even saw border guards displaying tremendous humanity, helping refugees onto vehicles, making sure that people were safe. So that was a relief because we were very concerned that the Bangladesh government needs to have a coherent policy. But on the ground today, the Bangladesh border guards were doing the right thing. And that was very good to see.

SULLIVAN: Myanmar's military insists it's only trying to root out the terrorists behind last month's attack and says the Rohingya militants are responsible for the torched homes and villages. The military says at least 400 people, mostly militants, have been killed since the fighting began. Human rights groups say the toll is likely to be much higher before the military is done. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Kuala Lumpur.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMAS BARFOD'S "PANTHEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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