As many as 18 village leaders who had worked on the issuance of national verification cards in Myanmar’s violence-ridden northern Rakhine state have been killed in the last three months in Muslim-majority Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, a state government official said Thursday.
The village heads had assisted staff members from the state’s Immigration and Population Department in issuing national verification cards (NVCs) — the step before the scrutinization of citizenship in accordance with the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law — to Rohingya Muslim residents as one of the programs being implemented to improve Rakhine state’s development.
The issuing of NVCs to the Rohingya is one of dozens of recommendations put forth by the government-created Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan.
“Within three months, up to 18 village heads who have helped with the issuance of NVCs in Rakhine were killed,” said Myint Khyine, permanent secretary of the Immigration and Population Department.
He blamed the murders on the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group that carried out deadly attacks on 30 police posts and an army base in northern Rakhine state on Aug. 25.
“The members of ARSA and people who have links and connections to ARSA did it,” he said.
The assertion could not be independently verified in a region that the government has kept largely off-limits to outside observers, aid workers, and reporters.
ARSA militants have been accused of invading villages inhabited by non-Muslims in northern Rakhine and of driving out or killing those who live there.
Local Hindus and the Myanmar government in late September said that ARSA militants detained nearly 100 people from several Hindu villages in the Kha Maung Seik village on Aug. 25, killed most of them, and dumped their corpses in mass graves.
The militants also forced the young Hindu women to convert to Islam and took them to a Muslim refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh.
'Working with police'
Myint Khyine said officials from his department are working with local police to find and arrest those responsible for killing the village leaders, but some are in hiding, and others have fled the area.
“They are silent and live as normal people during the day and kill the villages’ leaders at unexpected times during the night,” he said. “That’s why it is difficult to get them.”
“Although we have been working on issuing NVCs in the entire country, the murder cases have occurred only in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas,” he said.
The two townships, along with adjacent Rathedaung township, were at the epicenter of recent violence during a crackdown on the Rohingya by the Myanmar military in response to the ARSA attacks on Aug. 25.
The area was subject to another crackdown by Myanmar security forces following smaller-scale attacks on border guard stations by ARSA on Oct. 9, 2016.
“We have been working with police, the Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Ministry, and security forces on the NVC process and the protection of immigration employees,” Myint Khyine said.
Mobile teams of immigration staffers are issuing about 100 NVCs a day to 300,000 to 400,000 residents of Rakhine state who need to obtain them, he said. They are taking eye scans and fingerprints of applicants using biometric technology.
“The process for all people will take one or a few years,” he said.
More than 7,000 issued
More than 7,000 NVCs have been issued to villagers in Rakhine state since an authentication process began on Oct. 1, according to a statement by the office of President Htin Kyaw on Oct. 29.
Teams working in Maungdaw’s Shwezar village tract since Oct. 12 have issued cards to more than 100 villagers, the statement said.
Officials temporarily suspended the work on account of the Aug. 25 attacks, but resumed it at the beginning of October in areas that had returned to normalcy, it said.
The crackdown by security forces that included attacks on Muslims following the Aug. 25 violence drove more than 600,000 Rohingya across the border to neighboring Bangladesh where they now live in massive displacement camps.
Myanmar has systematically discriminated against the Rohingya who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied certain rights and access to basic services such as education, health care, and jobs.
The final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State issued in late August just before the ARSA attacks recommended that Myanmar review the 1982 Citizenship Law that prevents Rohingya from becoming Myanmar citizens.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.