Whereabouts of Muslims fleeing Rakhine violence said to be unknown
TWO weeks after a series of deadly attacks on border guard posts in northern Rakhine State left the region reeling, authorities say the whereabouts of Muslim residents who fled following the assault remain unknown.
According to international humanitarian agencies’ best guesses, some 10,000 Muslim Rohingya residents in the majority-Muslim northern township remain displaced, without access to aid.
The state government says about 3000 Rakhine Buddhists are staying in displacement camps. But officials say the Muslim population is not unaccounted for in the aftermath of the October 9 border assault, which saw nine police officers killed.
Police Major Soe Naing Aung told The Myanmar Times that missing Muslim villagers may have fled by water routes, or taken up hiding among northern Maungdaw’s rugged terrain.
“We still could not track into the deep knolls because it is difficult to reach there. Therefore, we don’t know any information on where they fled,” he said.
U Ye Htut, an official with the Maungdaw district administrative department, said Muslim families may also have fled in fear of their safety, despite being told they were free to remain in their homes, so long as they were not involved in the assaults.
“We announced that they can stay normally in the village if they did not commit the attack and cooperate with security forces while the forces are asking questions,” he said.
“However, nobody [stayed] – I think because they have anxiety as well,” he told The Myanmar Times.
Since the attacks, security personnel have deemed Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships “operation zones” where they are conducting what they allege are targeted sweeps. However, over the weekend, Reuters reported that residents in Maungdaw accuse security forces of killing noncombatants and burning homes.
U Kyaw Min, chair of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, told The Myanmar Times that the party asked for Muslim residents’ full cooperation with authorities, including answering any questions.
“There may be various [reasons] that Muslim residents fled, because the attacks are complicated and hard to explain. However, I believe that innocent Muslim residents had no plan to flee and they may have fled due to anxiety,” said U Kyaw Min, whose party courts a predominantly Muslim base.
Part of that anxiety may stem from the fact that the President’s Office, five days after the incident, announced that the attacks were “intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority Muslim population in the area”, injecting a clear religious component into the ongoing manhunt for the perpetrators.
In an interview last week with The Washington Post, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said video of the alleged attackers showed “clearly” that they had jihadist intentions.
“We are of course determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible,” she said.
U Ye Htut, the Maungdaw administrative official, said a level of cooperation between some local Muslim residents and the attackers was likely.
“The attacks did not occur without assistance from some residents because the attack was long-planned and we did not receive any information in advance. Therefore we could speculate that some residents may have been involved in the attack,” he said.
A senior Maungdaw township police official said a suspected financier of the assailants was arrested at his home in Maungdaw town on October 23, with law enforcement acting on information obtained during the interrogation of detainees.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to handle the situation in Rakhine State “fairly” and in accordance with the rule of law, but a group of 16 Rohingya advocacy groups released a statement on October 16 that alleged authorities’ security crackdown has been rife with human rights abuses.
“Since 9 October, under the pretext of looking for attackers, the Myanmar military and police forces have been indiscriminately killing the Rohingya, torching and plundering their homes and villages,” read a joint statement from the groups. “Two mass graves were found and about 100 Rohingya civilians were extra-judicially killed that included old men, women and children.”
The statement did not attribute its allegations to a specific source.
State media has reported a much lower death toll, and described those slain as “violent attackers” killed by security forces in self-defence.
According to the Maungdaw district administrative department, there are more than 150 Muslim villages in the northern part of Maungdaw, where two of the attacks occurred, with a Muslim population of nearly 200,000. Rioting between that largely stateless group and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 killed more than 100 people and displaced some 140,000, the vast majority of whom are Rohingya who remain in temporary camps four years later.
Most Muslims were reluctant to speak to reporters from The Myanmar Times during a recent trip to Maungdaw. Several said they had heard about the October 9 attacks, but knew little more about the situation.
The latest official state media accounting of those rounded up for alleged involvement included four suspected attackers and the alleged financier arrested on October 23, though a comprehensive tally has not been disclosed.
The remains of a burned-down house smoulder in War Pate village, Maungdaw township, on October 14, near the outpost where several border guards were killed by unknown assailants in an early-morning raid on October 9.