Border guard police in Maungdaw township in Myanmar’s Rakhine state told journalists visiting the violence-ravaged area on Wednesday that assailants responsible for a deadly attack on border guard posts in early October included both local Muslims and ones from neighboring Bangladesh.
Major General San Lwin, chief of the border guard police, told a group of local and international reporters at the Kyikanpyin border guard headquarters that those who attacked three border patrol stations in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships on Oct. 9 received training from the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a small local militant group active in the 1980s and the 1990s but believed to be defunct. Nine officers were killed in the raids.
The attackers also organized local Muslims to participate in subsequent clashes with security forces, which were intended to drive ethnic Rakhine people from their homes in the area, he said in remarks that could not independently be confirmed.
Myanmar army soldiers and border police, who swept into Maungdaw to lock down the area and search for the assailants, have arrested 609 people believe to be connected to the initial attacks and subsequent clashes between villagers and security forces, San Lwin said.
Seventy-three people have been found dead, and 106 have been sentenced, he said.
Authorities allowed in the government-selected group of local and international journalists from independent media organizations for a three-day visit to the affected areas on Dec. 19-21. Security forces have escort the team to Maungdaw, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew has been in place since Oct. 10.
The team of 13 journalists, including a reporter from RFA’s Myanmar Service, said that most houses in Rohingya villages in Muslim-majority Maungdaw remain empty.
About 27,000 Rohingya have fled their homes to seek refuge in Bangladesh, where authorities have previously denied that any attackers came from the country and crossed into Myanmar.
Some of them have accused Myanmar security forces of extrajudicial killings of villagers, rape, torture and arson, though the Myanmar government has denied the claims.
Maungdaw district administrator Ye Htut told the reporters that government authorities have granted permission to build seven ethnic villages in Maungdaw township for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
The reporters also visited villages where authorities say attackers fired on government troops and set fire to houses.
In the run-up to the visit, the United Nations, Western countries, and international human rights groups had called on the Myanmar government to open Maungdaw to independent journalists to investigate reports of killings, rape, torture, and arson by army soldiers who conducted security sweeps of Rohingya villages.
The Myanmar government has rejected allegations of misconduct and abuse by security forces in Maungdaw.
Report calls for ASEAN action
Researchers at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute, meanwhile, issued a report on Wednesday, urging members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to pay close attention to the situation of Muslims in Maungdaw in the aftermath of the attacks.
Though ASEAN members adhere to a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others in the regional organization, the researchers called on them to persuade Myanmar to allow ASEAN representatives to access Maungdaw, deliver humanitarian assistance to people there, and encourage initiatives to promote peaceful coexistence between ethnic Rakhine people and the Muslims.
“The October armed attacks in Rakhine and subsequent developments have taken on new dynamics that have region-wide security ramifications and that affect ASEAN unity and credibility,” the report said. “It is increasingly untenable for ASEAN to insulate itself from this unfolding crisis behind the shield of noninterference.”
Researchers also urged ASEAN to step up efforts to combat human smuggling and prevent traffickers from exploiting the situation in Rakhine, and enhance regional cooperation in border management and promote antiradicalism among Muslims in Myanmar and in other countries.
“The travails of the Rohingya, especially in the wake of the reported torching of buildings in Wa Peik [village] last month, have caught the imagination of Muslims worldwide and made it fertile ground for a new front of jihadism,” the report said. “Northern Rakhine may therefore be on the verge of becoming another pocket of radicalization in Southeast Asia.
The report warned that “pro-Rohingya sentiments are also energizing extremist elements in Indonesia and Malaysia at a time when religious tensions and the trend towards Islamic orthodoxy are running high in these countries.”
The report came two days after Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi called a meeting with 10 ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss the crisis.
She told them that the government is committed to resolving the crisis, but needs time. She also emphasized the importance of clearing up differences among ASEAN members through friendly consultations.
In the weeks before the meeting was called, Muslims in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia staged protests over the Myanmar government’s handling of the matter.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.