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New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership
Commentary / Asia

New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Since 2012, Myanmar has seen outbreaks of inter-communal and anti-Muslim violence, first in Rakhine State, where there is a large population of Rohingya Muslims as well as other Muslim communities such as the Kaman. The violence then spread to other parts of the country. (See our reports Storm Clouds on the Horizon and The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, and our June 2012 conflict alert.) Reports are now emerging of deadly attacks on Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township, an area near the Bangladesh border where the great majority of the population is Rohingya. Crisis Group has spoken to a number of individuals and organisations who have visited the area and interviewed people who said they witnessed the events. These accounts paint an alarming and consistent picture. Around 49 people are believed to have been killed in two violent incidents between 9 and 13 January. The allegations suggest that some of these killings were carried out by the police, and that the victims included women and children.

The first incident took place on 9 January, when the chief of a Rakhine Buddhist village allegedly intercepted and detained a group of eight Rohingya men from farther south in Rakhine State who were attempting to reach the Bangladesh border. In circumstances that are unclear, it appears that villagers killed these men and buried the bodies in a makeshift grave.

On 13 January, Rohingya from the nearby Du Chee Yar Tan village stumbled across the grave and photographed the bodies with smartphones. A police operation was then launched in what might have been an attempt to prevent information about the killing, particularly photographic evidence, getting out. It appears that in the course of that operation, a police sergeant was captured and killed by Rohingya villagers. This sparked a search for the officer, and when his bloody clothes were discovered a massive manhunt for his killers began. Local Buddhists also appear to have mounted a revenge attack on the Muslim villagers, with the complicity or even active involvement of some police. It is alleged that around 40 people were killed as a result.

The manhunt and search for the police officer’s body continue. As a result of the violence, all villagers have reportedly fled Du Chee Yar Tan, which has been sealed off by the authorities. An order has apparently been issued by the district chief to arrest all male residents from Du Chee Yar Tan over the age of ten. Nearby villages have been warned not to harbour anyone from the village.

The government has repeatedly denied that any killings have taken place, other than that of the police officer.

It is vital that the central government take clear and decisive action. The central government should immediately launch an impartial and transparent investigation into all alleged killings and take action with regard to any crimes committed.

The sealing off of the village and the reported order to arrest all male villagers constitute collective punishment and an intimidation that is not justified in the context of a police investigation.

Given allegations that local police (who are all Rakhine Buddhists) were involved in the killings – and taking into account previous allegations of this kind during earlier violence ­– the local officers should be withdrawn. The investigation and provision of security should be by police from outside Rakhine State, with the support of the army if necessary.

Finally, villagers must be allowed to swiftly return to the village and resume their livelihoods – and not confined to the village “for their own safety”, as has happened in other incidents.

Failure to adequately address these allegations carries strong risks. The central government may be seen as complicit in the cover-up of serious crimes, and extremists would be emboldened by the sense that anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State will go unpunished. This could have potentially grave consequences in the region, which is still reeling from earlier episodes of deadly violence.

A critical challenge facing Myanmar as the country opens up (emphasised in our Dark Side of Transition report) is to reform the police service and, at a time of rising intolerance and bigotry, make it more inclusive of Myanmar’s diversity. A clear statement of intent from the centre to address these latest serious allegations in Rakhine State is thus not simply a question of asserting the rule of law. It is necessary to demonstrate that the nation is prepared to protect its minority communities and embrace its diversity.

Op-Ed / Asia

Rohingya Deserve Non-violent Leadership

Originally published in Asia Times

In August 2017, the flight of 700,000 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar produced the world’s newest refugee crisis – and one of its worst. Now stuck in miserable camps in Bangladesh, the Rohingya have little prospect of returning to their homes any time soon.

Their suffering is primarily a grave humanitarian concern and the Bangladeshi government and its foreign partners should focus their response on protecting the well-being of those displaced and assisting host communities. But the Rohingya’s plight also raises a so far unspoken question: Will they wait patiently to return in a safe and dignified manner – for now an unrealistic goal – or will the main militant organization in their midst lead them to pursue their goals with violence?

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) formed in 2012 in the wake of strife among Buddhists and Rohingya in Myanmar’s underdeveloped and conflict-ridden northern Rakhine state. The group leveraged the anger and desperation of Rohingya facing daily oppression as an ethnic and religious minority. Through communal leaders, ARSA propagated a message of hope while in fact bolstering its position via a combination of claims to religious legitimacy and fear.

The militants are now attempting to re-establish themselves as a political voice in the Bangladesh camps. But it’s not too late for the refugees to establish non-militant leadership and self-governance.

ARSA does have sympathizers in the camps, but its authority is less clear than before the mass exodus. In the view of many Rohingya, it was ARSA’s attacks on Myanmar police that provoked the country’s brutal, indiscriminate military campaign forcing them into exile. Foreign governments and human-rights organizations have branded this campaign as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Not all refugees hold ARSA responsible for the calamity that befell them. Some adopt the view that, whether or not ARSA’s attacks had taken place, the Myanmar authorities would have found a way to drive the Rohingya from their land.

The Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves ... While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

But ARSA was also responsible for killings of civilians, both Rohingya and their Hindu neighbors, as it sought to eliminate perceived informants. After careful analysis, Amnesty International concludedthat ARSA massacred dozens of Hindu villagers in August 2017. The group exposed Rohingya civilians to Myanmar’s massively disproportionate response. Its militants did not wear uniforms or do anything else to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, and they launched attacks from the cover of villages.

Since the refugee exodus, ARSA has continued its insurgency, claiming responsibility for an attack on a Myanmar convoy in January. It has also been linked to several killings in the camps.

In October last year, 47 Rohingya religious scholars issued a fatwa condemning any act of jihad, even for self-defense, against Myanmar. But Crisis Group’s May report suggests that this ruling does not necessarily mean the Rohingya have abandoned ARSA or the idea of violent resistance. First, it was issued at the height of the exodus, when the scholars sought to reassure Bangladesh that the refugees were not a security threat. Second, it did not categorically reject violence, but rather denounced particular tactics the signatories viewed as premature or misguided.

Factors other than opposition to violence could hinder ARSA from representing the Rohingya. Village populations that once backed the militants are now scattered across the camps, new leaders (majhis) are emerging and the “common enemy” that ARSA rallied against – the Myanmar security forces – is far away across the border. Most refugees are preoccupied with the daily struggle to establish basic standards of living in the camps.

Nor does it appear that transnational jihadist groups – that is, groups such as al-Qaeda in the South Asian subcontinent, Islamic State (ISIS) or their Bangladeshi affiliates – have been able to exploit the Rohingya crisis to mobilize or recruit in the camps. While concerns this might happen are legitimate given the security landscape in Bangladesh, there is no evidence that it is occurring, nor that a counterterrorism lens is useful for understanding the evolving situation in the camps.

The Bangladeshi authorities appear to share this assessment. Moreover, ARSA itself has always sought to distance itself from transnational groups.

But the Rohingya’s plight is likely to worsen before it improves. The monsoon season has arrived, threatening the camps with flooding. While Bangladesh has thus far been hospitable to the refugees, the political climate could easily turn against them, particularly in the event of ARSA violence on Bangladeshi soil.

The Rohingya need a non-violent leadership who can work to ensure their safe and voluntary return to their homeland.