Something is burning on Myanmar’s western border.

What is it?

It's villages where Rohingya Muslims used to live.

Satellite imagery revealed 80 villages set ablaze between August 25 and September 11.

Rohingya villages burnt to the ground in Myanmar, sparking one of world’s worst refugee crises

Satellites have photographed scores of burning villages near Myanmar’s western border on several nights since August 25, the day the Myanmar army launched a military campaign against Rohingya civilians in response to attacks against government forces by militants from the minority group.

The humanitarian organisation Amnesty International used satellite imagery to identify the burning villages in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. The images corroborate on-the-ground photographs, videos, and interviews with several eyewitnesses both in Myanmar and across the border in Bangladesh.

“The evidence is irrefutable — the Myanmar security forces are setting northern Rakhine state ablaze in a targeted campaign to push the Rohingya people out of Myanmar,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, said in the organisation’s report. “Make no mistake: this is ethnic cleansing.”

Smoke billows above what is reported to be a burning village in Myanmar's Rakhine state as members of the Rohingya Muslim minority take shelter in a no-man's land between Bangladesh and Myanmar in Ukhiya on September 4, 2017. (K. M. Asad / AFP)

More than 3.7 lakh people have fled Rakhine into Bangladesh following the violence and village burning that began on August 25, the United Nations estimates. Another 87,000 Rohingya people fled Myanmar in late 2016 and early 2017 to escape military operations in Rakhine.

Over the years, thousands of Rohingya people have sought refuge in India. The Indian government wants to deport some 40,000 of them, saying they pose a security threat because many of them have ties to the Islamic State and Pakistan’s ISI spy agency. The UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva has sharply criticised India’s position on the crisis.

The village burnings are part of what rights groups say is a coordinated effort by Myanmar’s soldiers, police and groups of armed vigilantes to drive the Rohingya people from the country. Attacking squads sometimes surround a village and fire their guns into the air before entering; other times, they simply march in and begin shooting everywhere, eyewitnesses from within Rakhine state and across the Bangladeshi border told Amnesty International.

The attacks have come all across northwestern Rakhine — burning villages have been spotted on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

Villages burned all across northwest Rakhine
Location of villages seen burning by day, Aug. 25 - Sep. 11
Source: Amnesty International

Though Amnesty International was able to identify just 80 burning villages on satellite images, Human Rights Watch, another rights group, spotted more than 200 burning villages. The actual number of villages set aflame may be higher, as the monsoon clouds have made it difficult for satellites to detect all the fires.

Amnesty International spotted most of the burning villages on the nights of August 28th, 29th and 30th.

“I think it’s reasonable to surmise that the most intense military ‘clearance operations’ took place on those initial days following the attack,” said Conor Fortune, who works with Amnesty International’s crisis response group.

He added that “quick reprisal attacks against ethnic minorities by the Myanmar security forces” fit a pattern of armed conflict not only in Rakhine state, but also in the northern states of Kachin and Shan.

Villages seen burning on eight separate nights
Number of Rohingya villages seen burning at night, Aug. 25 - Sep. 11
Source: Amnesty International

The Rohingya people, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, are among the world’s most persecuted communities. The Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens, making them essentially stateless people. Human rights organisations describe their systematic targeting by the government and Buddhist nationalists as ethnic cleansing.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar rejects that description, saying the country’s forces are carrying out “clearance operations” against the insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which claimed responsibility for the August attacks.

Myanmar’s government is led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the international community has criticised for her weak response to the violence.