YE BAW KYA, Myanmar (Reuters) – Myanmar authorities displayed on Wednesday the bodies of Hindu villagers they say were killed by Muslim insurgents, victims of a surge of violence in someone else’s fight now playing their part in a propaganda war.
Authorities found 45 Hindu villagers in mass graves in the north of Rakhine state this week, and the news has dominated Myanmar’s media coverage of a new round of violence in old strife between the state’s Buddhists and Muslims.
The military on Wednesday flew a group of reporters from the city of Yangon to see the bodies laid out on the grass, and to hear from those who found them after information about the massacre filtered back from Hindus who have sought refuge from the violence in Bangladesh.
“We followed the paths based on the information we got from the other side,” police officer Okkar Ko told reporters at the scene.
“We found where the soil wasn’t normal and then when we dug up the ground, the smell came out.”
The latest violence in Rakhine state erupted on Aug. 25, when Rohingya Muslim insurgents attacked 30 police posts and an army camp, killing about 12 people.
Hours later, insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) came to the Hindu village of Ye Baw Kya, gathered up about 100 people, marched them away through their fields and killed them with knives, the government says.
The military response to the insurgent attacks has driven 480,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh and drawn U.N. accusations of ethnic cleansing by the army with the help of Buddhist vigilantes.
Myanmar denies that, saying its forces are fighting ruthless terrorists. For the government, the proof of the insurgents’ brutality is plain to see, lying in rows by the mass graves just outside the village of Ye Baw Kya.
“This is terrorism,” Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Win Myat Aye, who visited the site on Tuesday, told Reuters.
The ARSA has denied killing the Hindus saying they never kill civilians.
Exactly why Myanmar’s tiny Hindu minority in Rakhine state got caught up in the bloodshed is not clear, and different people have given different accounts at different times.
Some villagers have said the insurgents suspected Hindus of being on the side of the government and acting as government spies.
In late August, Reuters reporters in Bangladesh interviewed a group of Hindu women from the village who said their male loved ones were killed by Rakhine Buddhists.
However, three of the same women told Reuters this week that Muslims who brought them to Bangladesh had ordered them to say it was Buddhist vigilantes who had done the killing.
The three – who individually recounted closely matching stories – said that on Aug. 25, they and about 100 other Hindus were marched by masked men to the area of the mass graves.
They were later able to identify some of the masked men as Rohingya Muslims, although the women said the men spoke several languages they could not identify, besides the dialect spoken by both Muslims and Hindus in the area.
“We watched as they tied each person, hands behind their back and also legs … They cut all their throats and pushed them into a hole,” said one of the women, Bina Bala, 22, adding that the women were spared after promising to convert to Islam.
They said the attackers had objected to official identity cards given to Hindus but not Muslims, saying Hindus should not have them.
The victims were blindfolded, with their hands tied and had their throats slit, said Kyaw Maung Maung Thien, hospital superintendent in the Myanmar town of Maungdaw, who examined the bodies.
“The evidence points to a massacre by the ARSA terrorists,” he told the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
While the accusations fly, the bodies await cremation. Police have been guarding the site of the mass graves, lighting fires at night to keep wild dogs away.
Additional reporting by Shoon Naing and Simon Lewis in YANGON, Tommy Wilkes in COX’S BAZAR