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New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
New Attacks on Muslim Villagers in Myanmar’s Rakhine State
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
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.

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk towards Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 1 September 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Statement / Asia

The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened.

Since 2012, the International Crisis Group repeatedly has warned that, if left unresolved, Rakhine State’s volatile dynamics pose a major risk to Myanmar’s transition. If dealt with primarily through a heavy-handed, indiscriminate security response, rather than in the framework of a political strategy, the dangers were clearly set to become far worse. The events of recent weeks are not just causing enormous suffering to civilians, but bring Myanmar precipitously close to just such an unraveling of much that has been achieved since the end of military rule.

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

Nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants. Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It may indeed be difficult for the government to distinguish between ARSA members and other Rohingya. The events of last year and recent weeks, particularly the heavy handed military response in the wake of the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks, appear to have promoted a sense among Rohingya that a general uprising is underway. But operationally challenging as this is, it cannot be an excuse for military action against the general population. By doing so, the military will not quell the crisis, but rather play straight into the hands of ARSA by increasing the sense of grievance and hopelessness.

It is similarly vital to treat with utmost caution claims that the current crisis is being fuelled by militants with transnational jihadist aims. Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous.

If the Myanmar government chooses to continue a massive military response against the general population, even if parts of this population may be sympathetic to ARSA, or publicly to treat the violence as the work of jihadists, it risks creating conditions for the entrenchment or rise of those very same dynamics. An alienated, desperate and dispossessed population that is shunned by the country it claims as its home and by neighbours is ripe for exploitation by such groups and may believe it has little to lose if it were to turn to violence. The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable.

The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government will find no success, only long term violence and crisis, if it uses the presence of militants and the growth of some sympathy for them, as an excuse to address in an extreme manner the long-standing challenges of Rakhine state. The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state, Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities. This political path is difficult and will require compromises many may find distasteful. But taking this road is the only way to reduce the risks of serious violence, more displacement and greater human misery.