At least 96 people have been killed in the Rakhine region of Myanmar since early Friday, according to government figures. The new outbreak of violence follows alleged attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, on more than two dozen police and border outposts.
But advocates for the minority Rohingya community have told Al Jazeera that the casualties are much higher. They say nearly 800 Muslim Rohingyas, including women and children, have been killed in the latest violence.
Locals and activists accuse the state police of shooting indiscriminately at unarmed Rohingya men, women and children and carrying out arson attacks in what they have declared is a war against "terrorism," especially around the townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung. The area has a population of around 800,000 people. They have also imposed a curfew in the affected region.
Thousands of Rohingya have tried to flee into Bangladesh, but Bangladeshi border guards are reportedly turning them back.
Aziz Khan, a Maungdaw resident, said the army stormed his village early on Friday and began "firing indiscriminately at people's cars and homes."
"Government forces and the border guard police killed at least 11 people in my village. When they arrived they started shooting at everything that moved. Some soldiers then carried out arson attacks.
"Women and children were also among the dead," he said. "Even a baby wasn't spared."
Senior Rakhine state officials who visited the conflict area said Sunday that government forces were making efforts to restore peace in the region.
"We are trying our best to bring stability and now we can see the areas are stabilizing," said Nyi Pu, the state's chief minister. "But anything can happen at any time, so I can't say what will happen."
Dr. Win Myat Aye, union minister of social welfare, relief, and resettlement, said: "We are now focusing strongly on the security matters to make the area more secure. And we are also we are increasing our military strength."
Myanmar, with a majority Buddhist population, has nearly 1 million Muslim Rohingya living in the northern part of Rakhine, a western state where the violence is taking place. ARSA, a Rohingya insurgent group, took responsibility for Thursday night's attacks saying they were carried out to defend Rohingya communities from government forces.
On Friday, the government declared ARSA a terrorist organization, and on Sunday, the office of Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi issued an official warning to media: "We warn the media to avoid writing in support of the group" and ask them to refer to them as "terrorists" instead of "insurgents."
The Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy, NLD, has been in power for nearly two years now but the renowned human rights leader has been widely criticized for not acknowledging the grave human rights violations against the minority Rohingya people.
At the beginning of 2017, Suu Kyi denied visas to members of a UN fact finding mission who were to investigate the ongoing human rights abuses by security forces in the Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim minorities.
Over several decades, the government has made consistent efforts to erase the minority-Muslim Rohingya’s historical ties to Rakhine state that date to the 8th Century A.D. by denying them basic human rights such as citizenship, access to education, among others. Since 1994, they have not received their birth certificates from the state. They also require a government permit to marry.
The Myanmar government refuses to consider the Rohingya as a legitimate native ethnic minority and considers them as illegal immigrants who came from neighboring Bangladesh.
According to a UNHCR report on forced displacement in South-East Asia, over 168,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the last five years as a result of violence and desperation.
Between 1991 and 1992, nearly 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh amid grave human rights violations such as rape, forced labor, and religious persecution.