UPDATED at 4:52 P.M. on 2017-08-25
Overnight attacks on police outposts by Rohingya Muslim "extremists" in Myanmar’s volatile northern Rakhine state have left at least 71 people dead, in the latest violence to grip the religiously and ethnically divided area, the government said Friday.
Among the dead are one security staffer, 10 policemen, a deputy township officer, and 59 extremists, according to a statement issued by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office.
Eleven people were injured in the attacks, three of them seriously, and one “terrorist” was arrested, it said.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the attacks on 30 outposts in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, and Rathedaung townships in a Twitter post, calling them “defensive action” against persecution of Rohingya Muslims by government forces.
The group is believed to have incited deadly attacks on three local border guard posts in October 2016 and claims to lead an ongoing insurgency movement in northern Rakhine’s Mayu mountain range.
"Burma has been ramping up military in Arakan state since last few weeks in order to derail the 'Kofi Annan Commission Report and Recommendations' by triggering an unrest in the state," the ARSA said on its Twitter page. "Therefore, we have tried our best to avoid any potential conflict meanwhile."
It accused the "military and security forces" deployed in two areas of carrying out "raids; committing killings, loot[ings] in many Rohingya villages across the townships; and molesting Rohingya women."
ARSA chief Ata Ullah said in a 19-minute video uploaded to YouTube earlier this month that the group's "primary objective" is to "liberate our people from dehumanized oppression perpetrated by all successive Burmese regimes.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, strongly condemned the attacks on security forces, saying that they were deliberately carried out after an advisory commission on Rakhine state led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan released its final report with recommendations on steps to end the regions's sectarian strife and violence.
Among the commission’s many suggestions were calls for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens because they are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and an end to restrictions placed upon them in the Buddhist-dominated country.
“The government had been aware of the risk of the attacks to coincide with the release of the commission’s final report yesterday and had issued instruction to relevant Union ministers,” she said in the statement issued by her office.
“It is clear that today’s attacks are a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine state,” she said. “We must not allow our work to be derailed by the violent actions of extremists.
Early morning attacks
The police outposts that were attacked starting around 1 a.m. include Natchaung, Tamantha, Kuntheepin-Chaungwa, Nantthataung, Nantthataung-Chaungwa, Meetaik-Chaungwa, Kyeekyun, Zeepin-chaungwa, Laungdon, Thihokyun, Zinpaingnyar, Tharaykonboung, Panyaungbingyi, Shweyinaye, Myinlut, Alethankyaw, Udaung (Natala), Taung Bazzar, Phaungtawpyin and Maungdaw (Natala), the statement said.
At that time, about 500 to 600 attackers entered Taung Bazzar village market in Buthidaung township, and Myanmar army soldiers and police fought them for an hour and half until they retreated, said local police officer Tun Naing.
“People from Buthidaung and Taung Bazzar are frightened and worried, so we took about 200 of them to Light Infantry Regiment No. 522,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “No villagers are left in Taung Bazzar. The government army, police, and border security guards are deployed in the area now.”
At about 3 a.m., about 150 “extremist terrorists” divided themselves into two groups and attempted to infiltrate Light Infantry Regiment No. 552 where they were driven out by Myanmar army soldiers, according to the statement issued by the State Counselor’s Office.
Other local administrative staffers and villagers in several locales in the region were evacuated to military battalions, and police and border guard stations, the statement said.
Security force are evacuating civilians in Maungdaw township to safer places and carrying out area clearance operations, it said.
Myint Swe, a Muslim resident of Maungdaw’s ward No. 2, told RFA that he and his family left their home and sought shelter in downtown Maungdaw after they heard gunfire.
“Some other families are moving out to the places where they think it’s safe,” he said. “We have police and security guards in Maungdaw, but we can’t go around the town now.”
He said local residents had assisted the “terrorists” with their armed assaults.
“These terrorists came into our area, and some local residents helped them carry out the attacks,” he said. “They could not have done these attacks without help from the locals.”
Fighting between "extremists" and security forces is still occurring in some areas.
“We heard that minor fighting is still going on in [Maungdaw township’s] Maunghnama village,” said Rakhine State government secretary Tin Maung Swe.
A mine exploded near three border guard police vehicles in front of the village’s local mosque at 2 p.m. during a reinforcement mission, he said.
Bangladesh fears new influx
The violence and renewed security operations prompted a new exodus of Rohingya refugees to head towards neighboring Bangladesh to where more than 75,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine fled during a military crackdown following last October’s attacks.
"The new influx of Rohingya people will generate more problems," Iqbal Sobhan Choudhury, Information Advisor to the Prime Minister told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, in Dhaka. "We request the Myanmar authority to be cautious in handling the issue. They should solve the problem politically, not militarily,"
"Already Bangladesh is bearing the brunt of their conflict," he said. "Now Rohingyas will try to enter into Bangladesh. Those who are already staying in Bangladesh are causing big socioeconomic problem."
According to the United Nations, more than 80,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since last October's clashes, the Associated Press reported.
Bangladesh Foreign secretary Mohamndd Shahidul Haq told BenarNews on Friday that Bangladesh has issued a note of protest to Myanmar, citing that it is not possible to allow new Rohingyas anymore, though the country has allowed thousands of Rohingyas from the humanitarian ground for decades.
“We don’t think we will allow anymore new Rohingya now," he said. "It can’t happen again and again. We have issued a strong note of protest to Myanmar.”
Sariful Islam Jomaddar, Deputy Commander (Teknaf 2) Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) said that there was a wave of Rohingya arrivals early Friday and that 146 of them had been detained from different points of the Naf River border. "And later on, we have sent them back with some humanitarian aid."
BenarNews sources in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh said ARSA militants had been crossing into Bangladesh.
“There are more than 150 members of Myanmar’s separatist Rohingya groups in Ukhiya-Teknaf areas, who go back and forth across the borders,” said a high-ranking source at a refugee camp who requested anonymity.
Asked about presence of ARSA in Bangladesh, Iqbal Sobhan said, “Anybody can make irresponsible claim. But that is not true."
"Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced zero tolerance to militancy or insurgency," he said. "Our government does not allow any insurgence group to use our land against the neighboring county like India and Myanmar. But if they have any authentic information about insurgence group, they can inform our security agency.”
In early August, the Myanmar government dispatched an army battalion to northern Rakhine state to provide additional security for ethnic Rakhine people following a spate of deadly attacks blamed on Muslim “terrorists” that began after the security operation ended in February.
Annan, rights groups weigh in
The latest spate of violence in northern Rakhine could elevate the current level of repression to which the Rohingya have long been subjected since communal violence directed against them by Buddhists in 2012. At the time, more than 200 people died, and 140,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes into internally displaced persons camps.
On Friday, Annan, who is chairman of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, said: “I am gravely concerned by, and strongly condemn, the recent attacks.”
“I strongly urge all communities and groups to reject violence,” he said. “After years of insecurity and instability, it should be clear that violence is not the solution to the challenges facing Rakhine state.
London-based rights group Amnesty International said the fresh attacks signal a dangerous escalation in the turmoil in northern Rakhine.
“These attacks are a dangerous escalation in violence and could put ordinary people in Rakhine state at risk, in particular as tensions have been reaching a boiling point in the region recently,” said Josef Benedict, the group's international deputy campaigns director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “We urge all sides to show the utmost restraint and ensure that ordinary people are protected from human rights violations and abuses.”
Amnesty international was one of the right groups that documented unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and other sexual violence inflicted upon the Rohingya by security forces during the four-month crackdown following the October 2016 attacks.
Benedict cautioned that the new violence “cannot lead to repeat of last year’s vicious military reprisals responding to a similar attack, when security forces tortured, killed and raped Rohingya people and burned down whole villages.”
“Although the government has an obligation to protect people, this cannot be seen as giving the army a blank cheque to commit atrocities against parts of the population,” he said, adding that it is crucial for the government to address the systematic discrimination in Rakhine state, which has left people trapped in violence and destitution.
He called on the government to implement the recommendations outlined in the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.
Similarly, Charles Santiago chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a member of Malaysia’s parliament, expressed alarm about the latest violence in Rakhine.
“The events of the past 24 hours cast in stark relief the urgent need to take immediate measures to deescalate conflict and chart a path toward long-term peace, and the recommendations delivered to the government by the [Advisory] Commission [on Rakhine state] are an ideal place to start,” he said in a statement.
“The latest developments reinforce the need, emphasized the commission’s report, for the government and security forces to act to ensure that basic human rights, including freedom of movement and access to basic services, are afforded to all people in Rakhine state, and that accountability exists for human rights violations,” he said.
The United States embassy in Yangon also condemned the attacks.
“We recognize the government and security forces have the responsibility to act to apprehend the perpetrators and prevent further violence, and we urge them to do so in a way that protects all innocent civilians,” said a statement issued on the embassy’s website.
“We also urge all communities to ensure their rhetoric and their actions contribute to restoration of peace and stability,” it said.
Reported by Thet Su Aung, Thin Thiri, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.