Myanmar Boosts Measures to Take on Rohingya Militants in Rakhine

Myanmar’s military and government are stepping up efforts to tackle chaos in northern Rakhine state and deter further attacks by militant Rohingya Muslims who sparked another round of deadly violence last week with armed assaults on 30 police outposts.

Militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the government has declared a terrorist group, attacked the outposts and an army base over the weekend in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships, prompting further clashes that have killed more than 100 people, including insurgents, law enforcement officials, civilians, and a government employee.

The country’s National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), an 11-member body responsible for security and defense affairs in the Southeast Asian nation, will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the turmoil, said Major General Than Htut Thein, deputy chief of the Head Office of the Security for Military Affairs.

Myanmar’s constitution empowers the NDSC to formulate policy on military and security issues, including the right to petition the president to declare a nationwide state of emergency. The military holds six of the seats on the council, which also includes President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi.

The continued hostilities between Rohingya militants and soldiers this week in the religiously divided area has been accompanied by the burning of villages, driving some 10,000 ethnic Rakhine people from their homes, and forcing some 7,500 Rohingya to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.

“Both communities have lost trust in each another, and this time we are seeing highest level of concern and the highest level of hatred,” Than Htut Thein said during a press briefing on the attacks on Tuesday in the capital Naypyidaw. “Military troops and security guards are trying to attain stability and security in the region,” he said.

“The Bengali extremists’ goal to get their own territory will be accomplished if our western defense is penetrated,” Than Htut Thein said, using a derogatory word for Rohingya Muslims who are deemed illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Myanmar. “That’s why we are going to hold an emergency meeting of the National Defense and Security Council to work on it.”

Than Htut Thein went on to say that soldiers had found the militants’ camps in the Mayu mountain range that spans part of Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in northern Rakhine, and that those who launched the deadly attacks on police outposts on Aug. 25-26 did not manage to capture the stations.

“These terrorists’ goal is to get their own territory,” said major General Aung Ye Win, vice chairman of the Myanmar military’s True News Information Team, at the press conference attended by local and international reporters and military attaches from the United States, China, and Bangladesh.

“They’ve already said it,” he said.

Briefing for diplomats

Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, Myanmar’s minister for home affairs, told diplomats at Yangon’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) on Tuesday that the ARSA had intended to capture Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships to establish their own territory, the online news service Frontier Myanmar reported.

He said the militant group had carried out 60 attacks since late night on Aug. 24, and as a result had “damaged the ruling systems of the villages,” though government forces now have the two townships under control, the report said.

Kyaw Swe also repeated the government’s long-held stance that Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar, during the briefing attended by defense ministry officials and National Security Adviser Thaung Tun.

“We have already said that the Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar,” he said. “There is no Rohingya among our ethnic groups. [What] we have seen are the Bengalis in this region who have tried to destroy Myanmar’s rule of law.”

During the attacks, militants killed 63 people and captured 65 weapons, of which the military has recovered 27, he said.

He also reiterated claims by state media that staff members of some international nongovernmental organizations were involved with the militants, but provided no evidence, Frontier Myanmar reported.

The spike in violence, however, prompted the foreign staff of United Nations agencies and other international nongovernmental organizations working in Maungdaw to evacuate to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe.

The Rohingya are not listed as one of Myanmar’s official ethnic groups, though many have lived in the country for generations. Because of their illegal status, they have been denied citizenship and access to basic services such as education and health care.

Of the 1.1 million Rohingya in Rakhine state, about 120,000 live in internally displaced persons camps near the Rakhine capital Sittwe where they were sent following deadly communal violence with Buddhists in 2012.

About 90,000 Rohingya fled their homes in northern Rakhine during a crackdown by security forces following deadly attacks on three local border guard stations in October 2016 for which the ARSA claimed responsibility.

Some of the Rohingya accused soldiers and border police of committing atrocities against them, though the government has denied most of the allegations.

Now an estimated 4,000 Rohingya fleeing the new spate of violance are stranded between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Reuters reported.

Lawmakers’ urgent motion

In a related development, the Rakhine state parliament on Tuesday discussed an urgent motion calling for the protection of ethnic minorities amid the ongoing violence.

Lawmakers approved work on the proposal submitted by parliamentarian Tun Thar Sein in a bid to provide help to 80 villages in northern Rakhine that are now “trapped” amid the clashes.

Though the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road that had been closed since Aug. 25 reopened on Monday, fighting is still going on in remote villages, residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

The Myanmar government has arranged for 11 reporters from local and international news agencies to travel to northern Rakhine state to cover the current attacks, said Min Aung, Rakhine state’s minister of municipal affairs.

In recent days, more than 200 people have fled Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships and gone to Sittwe where they are staying in monasteries, schools, religious buildings, and police stations, he said.

“Relief and Resettlement Minister Win Myat Aye and Rakhine state’s chief minister have traveled to where the victims are by helicopter for [the past] three days and have helped them with whatever they need,” he told RFA.

“The director general of the health department also went to provide them with health care,” he said.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that satellite imagery of the tri-township area showed burned buildings in several villages along a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch.

The central government and army have accused local Rohingya of burning down homes in the last few days, but HRW refuted the claim.

“The Burmese government and army blame Rohingya residents and militants for the burning of some structures, but thus far have not presented evidence to support their allegations,” HRW’s statement said.

Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Zin Mar Win, Kaung Htet Kyaw, Min Thein Aung, and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin