Ro­hingya cor­nered by poverty, trailed by vi­o­lence

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Hemmed in by Myan­mar se­cu­rity forces and men­aced by ab­duc­tions and killings, Ro­hingya Mus­lims in a con­flict-scarred cor­ner of Rakhine State say fear is one of the few con­stants in their lives. Last week for­eign me­dia were given par­tial ac­cess to the iso­lated wedge of the north­west­ern state for the first time since se­cu­rity forces launched a months-long op­er­a­tion to root out mil­i­tants who at­tacked border po­lice posts.

The UN wants to es­tab­lish if that cam­paign amounted to eth­nic cleans­ing af­ter ac­counts of mass rape, killing and ar­son emerged from Ro­hingya who fled to neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh. For those left be­hind in the rat­tan-walled fron­tier vil­lages the vi­o­lence and in­se­cu­rity is un­re­lent­ing, lo­cals told re­porters, un­der the watch of Myan­mar border forces who steered the visit.

“Our hus­bands are on the run. They left us be­cause they are afraid of border guard po­lice,” one Ro­hingya woman told AFP, re­quest­ing anonymity for safety rea­sons. “They burned our house. We have no home and noth­ing to eat. Our hus­bands are hid­ing some­where.” The large-scale mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion has abated but the area re­mains in lock­down, with spo­radic killings by mil­i­tary pa­trols still in­tent on root­ing out “ter­ror­ists”.

The UN be­lieves hun­dreds may have died in what may be the blood­i­est chap­ter of Bud­dhist-ma­jor­ity Myan­mar’s years-long per­se­cu­tion of the Ro­hingya Mus­lims.

The mi­nor­ity are widely re­viled as il­le­gal mi­grants from Bangladesh, al­though many Ro­hingya fam­i­lies say their an­ces­tors have lived in the area for gen­er­a­tions. Now a new peril has emerged: scores of lo­cal men have been ab­ducted and mur­dered by un­known gangs of knifewield­ing men, with state me­dia re­port­ing they are dressed in black and of­ten wear­ing masks.

Au­thor­i­ties say the assassins are tar­get­ing lead­ers from the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity and any­one per­ceived to be a state col­lab­o­ra­tor. They blame Ro­hingya mil­i­tants for the mur­ders. In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group an­a­lyst Richard Horsey says some 60 peo­ple may have been tar­geted in a “sys­tem­atic” cam­paign “to take out Mus­lims who are in some way con­nected to, or per­ceived to be con­nected to, au­thor­i­ties”.

Mys­te­ri­ous killings

In an area stained by mis­trust and ru­mour it is un­clear who is be­hind the at­tacks-and the fear is in­ten­si­fy­ing in the face of al­most daily re­ports of killings. Ear­lier this month uniden­ti­fied men dragged fa­ther-of-six At­thu Suwan from the bed he was shar­ing with his wife in Maung Hnama vil­lage. They stabbed the 44-year-old, who oc­ca­sion­ally worked as a trans­la­tor for lo­cal of­fi­cials, and car­ried his body into the dark­ness, his fam­ily and friends told re­porters on the gov­ern­ment-run press trip.

“I haven’t even been able to eat since they took my son,” his el­derly mother Moeyeyan Khatu said, her face etched with sad­ness. On Mon­day state me­dia re­ported his body had been found aban­doned in a nearby creek. “We are fear­ful it (the killings) will hap­pen again,” his neigh­bour, 67year-old Hanum­yar, told AFP. The gov­ern­ment blames the at­tacks on the self-styled Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army (ARSA), a newly formed Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group.

The group de­nies any in­volve­ment, in­stead ac­cus­ing the mil­i­tary in state­ments is­sued through an un­ver­i­fied Twit­ter ac­count. They do how­ever claim the raids on po­lice border posts last Oc­to­ber. The raids sparked the month­s­long “clear­ance op­er­a­tion” by the mil­i­tary which sent more than 70,000 flee­ing into Bangladesh.

Ro­hingya es­capees shared har­row­ing ac­counts of se­cu­rity of­fi­cers slaugh­ter­ing ba­bies, burn­ing peo­ple alive and gang-rap­ing women-abuses UN in­ves­ti­ga­tors said may amount to crimes against hu­man­ity. The army de­nies the claims and says its re­sponse was pro­por­tion­ate in the face of ter­ror­ist in­ter­lop­ers. But the crack­down sparked global op­pro­brium and the UN has com­mis­sioned a fact-find­ing mis­sion to probe the vi­o­lence.

Rock and a hard place

Myan­mar has re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the probe, deny­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tors visas. Un­able to leave be­cause of travel restric­tions and ab­ject poverty, Ro­hingya vil­lagers say they are trapped be­tween an op­pres­sive state and venge­ful mil­i­tants. Adding to the cli­mate of fear, death threats and fat­was (Is­lamic re­li­gious rul­ings) have cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia aimed at any­one who dares to stand against the mil­i­tants, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral an­a­lysts and Ro­hingya sources. On the me­dia visit, of­fi­cials sought to play down the mil­i­tary’s cam­paign and the mur­ders. Po­lice Bri­gadier Gen­eral San Lwin, chief of Rakhine’s state po­lice, said some of the killings might re­late to “per­sonal grudges” and not mil­i­tancy. But lo­cals say they are now fright­ened to take of­fi­cial posts in case they too become tar­gets. A 35year-old Mus­lim man, re­cently ap­pointed as a house­hold head in Tin­may vil­lage, said his pre­de­ces­sor was killed in April af­ter talk­ing to lo­cal re­porters. “I do not sleep at home,” he added, re­quest­ing anonymity. “I sleep at a po­lice out­post with se­cu­rity.” — AFP

This photo taken on July 13, 2017 shows a Mus­lim fam­ily at Maung Hnama vil­lage, Buthi­daung town­ship in Myan­mar’s north­ern Rakhine state. —AFP

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