With a new government plan to arm Rakhine Buddhist civilians, Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar fear the worst.
Rakhine State, Myanmar – As the sun creeps towards its midday peak, Soe Myat Naing’s house grows insufferably hot. Despite the stifling air, he dare not leave the safety of his oven walls and sits with unease, waiting for his cue to flee.
“We have to run away from our village when the military comes, they threaten the men so we have to run and leave the women. When we are not in the villages they go into our houses and take our possessions” he says.
Three days ago the Myanmar army raided the village of Nga Sar Kyu in northern Rakhine state where Soe Myat Naing lives with his family. They stole his solar panels, but did not stop at this.
“They arrested 30 women and raped 19, including my younger sister who is 23 years old. She cannot walk,” he says. “The situation is getting worse every day.”
A brutal operation
The Myanmar military have been conducting a brutal operation in northern Rakhine for the past month and stand accused of a litany of human rights abuses against the local Rohingya population, which include extrajudicial killing , sexual assault and arson.
The government has denied abuses by troops.
The operation was launched in response to a series of coordinated attacks on three border guard posts in Maungdaw township in early October, which left nine police officers dead. The government blamed the attack on a group of 400 Rohingya militants from a previously unknown organisation called Aqa Mul Mujahidin ‘.
Last week, another policeman was killed in a shooting at a border guard post in Maungdaw township.
Humanitarian organisations estimate that as many as 15,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced from their homes in Northern Rakhine state since the counterinsurgency operation began.
However, aid workers have been prohibited from attending to their needs. Foreign and independent journalists have also been blocked from the military zone, while others have been harassed for reporting on the alleged abuses.
Last week, a delegation of foreign diplomats were granted access to several villages in Maungdaw township but were not taken to the scene of the most grave allegations against the security forces.
Nevertheless, UN coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien called on the Myanmar government to launch an independent investigation into the alleged human rights abuses.
“The worrying thing about these human rights abuses is that the government deny every single allegation. They have put down the rape allegations and that [the military] have been burning houses, even though it has been confirmed,” says Chris Lewa, of the advocacy group Arakan Project, who have sources across Maungdaw township.
“The biggest problem right now is that [the military] have expanded their area of operation so even more people are experiencing raids, looting and arrests,” she says.
A nationalist agenda
With every day that the military operation continues comes greater pressure from the international community for the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya population to stop.
This, however, is of little consequence to the regional government which is heavily represented by the Arakan National Party, an ethnic Rakhine political group that pursues a nationalist agenda.
In an interview last week, executive secretary of the Rakhine State government, Tin Maung Swe said: “We must protect our national interests and these Muslims are not part of that. We don’t care what you foreigners think. We must protect our land and our people, humanitarian concerns are a secondary priority.”
To counter the alleged threat from Rohingya militants, the Myanmar government have begun arming and training a “regional police force” comprised of non-Muslim residents from the troubled townships in northern Rakhine.
Only citizens of Myanmar are eligible for the training, ruling out the 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Rakhine State, whose citizenship was revoked by the military junta in 1982 .
If I was an ordinary man I would join this training. Everyone who loves this land should join this training.
Buddanta Manithara, Buddhist monk
This was a welcome announcement for the Buddhist minority living in northern Rakhine State, where 90 percent of the population are Rohingya Muslims.
“Staying in Maungdaw is like staying in a foreign country because of the other group of people [the Rohingya]. We have been so worried and could not go anywhere freely,” says Buddanta Manithara, a monk from the Alo Taw Pyae monastery.
Arming the villagers
Alo Taw Pyae became a rare place of solace following the attacks in Maungdaw township in early October. Within the confines of the peaceful monastery, supported by monks like Buddanta Manithara, 309 Buddhists sought refuge.
But according to Manithara, arming these villagers is the best way to provide security.
“It is a good idea because the original ethnic people from here [Maungdaw township] must protect their land and property … If I was an ordinary man I would join this training. Everyone who loves this land should join this training.” says Manithara. “We will never leave our place, no matter how much they [the Rohingya] attack us”.
The government’s plan to arm civilians has stoked fears of another bloody conflict in a region of Myanmar already reeling from a wave of inter-religious violence that left 100 dead and 140,000 displaced in 2012.
“Establishing an armed, untrained, unaccountable force drawn from only one community in the midst of serious ethnic tensions and violence is a recipe for disaster,” said Sam Zarifi, from the International Commission of Jurists.
These fears are echoed among the Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State who are already feeling the full force of the Myanmar military.
“Most of the security forces here are members of Rakhine ethnic group. Now they are going to give their civilians that training too so there will be even more armed Rakhine and we will be even more oppressed. I am worried that the situation is going to get even worse,” says Maung Soe.
Like Myat Naing Soe, he has passed the last few weeks cowering in the shadows of his family home, fearful of the dreaded security forces.
“The township administration came and told us that the border force and military are going to torch our house, they haven’t shown up in our area so far, but in other places near us,” he says.
The recent trouble in Rakhine state comes just one year after Aung San Suu Kyi – recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize – swept her party to electoral victory in the country’s first democratic elections in quarter of a century. Her party holds no authority over the Myanmar military.
Nevertheless, she has offered few words on the human rights situation in Rakhine, focusing instead on a tour of nearby Asian countries, and it is her silence on the brewing sectarian conflict, rather than the military brutality inflicted upon the Rohingya population, that is causing them the greatest amount of distress.
“What hurts the most is that we’re suffering under the democratic government rather than military regime. We thought we would have a better life under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.” says Maung Soe.
“We have no future now.”