Maungdaw (Myanmar) (AFP) – Myanmar troops are still searching for nearly 50 more Hindu villagers feared slaughtered in Rakhine state, officials said Wednesday, as local leaders identified dozens of corpses unearthed from mass graves this week.
The military has blamed the killings on the Muslim Rohingya militants it claims to be targeting in a crackdown that has sent nearly half a million Rohingya refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh in one month.
The army operation has been so outsized and brutal that the UN has accused troops of systematically evicting the Rohingya Muslim minority, who have faced decades of persecution in the mainly Buddhist country.
Scores of villages have been burnt to the ground. Rights groups accuse troops of using arson to force the Rohingya out and block their return, a charge the army denies.
On Wednesday a Myanmar minister, Win Myat Aye, was quoted in state media as saying the government would manage all fire-damaged land in Rakhine, a development likely to raise concern about the Rohingya refugees’ ability to return.
The army has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing, but has restricted press access to the conflict zone and has posted regular updates that blame Rohingya militants for the bloodshed.
The army and government have also sought to highlight the suffering of other ethnic groups swept up in the unrest, such as Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus.
On Wednesday the army flew journalists to the place where the mass graves of 45 Hindu villagers, including many women and children, were discovered earlier this week.
The decomposing skeletal bodies remained laid out in rows on a grassy field outside the village of Ye Baw Kyaw as distraught relatives rocked and wailed.
Locals have helped identify 25 of the corpses, according to the government’s Information Committee.
Security officers are still searching for 48 missing Hindus whom relatives fear are dead.
Deadly raids on police posts by Rohingya militants on August 25 sparked the army backlash.
Hindus who fled the area have told AFP that masked men stormed into their community that day and hacked victims to death with machetes before dumping them into freshly-dug pits.
Speaking to media on the army-led press trip, Maung Ba, a 32-year-old Hindu, said several of his relatives were among those brutally murdered.
“I identified them based on their clothes and body shape,” he said solemnly.
Ni Maul, a Hindu leader who has helped with the search, said authorities found the graves using testimony from eight Hindu women who were spared and brought to Bangladesh after they agreed to convert to Islam.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The crisis has intensified religious hatreds and fuelled ethnically-charged claims and counterclaims.
The focal point of the unrest, Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, was once home to several religious communities, with the Rohingya a majority.
But vast swathes of the border region are now completely emptied of Muslim residents.