The Myanmar government has pledged to fight back against a Rohingya Muslim militant group that has claimed responsibility for an ambush on Friday that left seven people injured, including six soldiers, in volatile northern Rakhine state.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) said it carried out the landmine and gunfire attack on a vehicle transporting a sick military officer to a hospital in Maungdaw township because the Myanmar military continues to commit “heinous crimes” against the Rohingya, including rape, arson, indiscriminant killings, and property theft.
“At this juncture, ARSA [is] left with no other option but to combat ‘Burmese state-sponsored terrorism’ against the Rohingya population …” ARSA said in a statement issued on Twitter on Sunday, in a reference to continued attacks on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine in the wake of a military crackdown.
Government officials said they would not let ARSA continue to mount attacks in northern Rakhine state, where government soldiers conducted a brutal campaign targeting Rohingya residents in response to deadly ARSA assaults on police outposts and an army base on Aug. 25, 2017.
The campaign, which the United Nations and United States have deemed ethnic cleansing, drove about 655,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
“We will respond to terrorists in the same manner,” Zaw Htay, director-general of State Counselor’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “The Myanmar government officially declared ARSA a terrorist group.”
Under an agreement with the Bangladeshi government, Myanmar is to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees later this month.
Bangladesh authorities are coming to Myanmar soon to finalize the agreement for sending refugees back, Zaw Htay said.
“These attacks by ARSA are planned to stop the Myanmar government’s efforts to receive the refugees back and to help them resettle,” he said. “We can’t let our process for repatriating the refugees and working on their resettlement be destroyed. We will strongly respond to any organizations, including ARSA, that try to destroy our process.”
The international community condemned the most recent ARSA attacks.
“This act of violence only serves to further undermine peace and security in northern Rakhine State and the region,” said the U.S. embassy in a statement issued Monday. “We continue to urge all parties to ensure their rhetoric and their actions contribute to establishing the conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of all those who have been displaced by violence to their places of origin.”
The British embassy in Yangon also issued a statement saying that the situation in Rakhine state cannot be improved through violence and called on the Myanmar government and military to provide security and rule of law for all communities in the region.
In its statement, ARSA said it would continue its “legitimate struggles” in cooperation with the international community until all its demands are met.
Zaw Htay, however, cautioned countries to recognize ARSA as a terrorist organization.
“We would like the international community, including the U.N. and friendly nations, to realize that ARSA is a terrorist group that has been intentionally disturbing the stability of Rakhine state,” he said. “Therefore, we would like to request that the international community not support that terrorist group by endorsing their terrorist activities, supporting them politically, or publishing something that would encourage them.”
“The international community needs to understand what the Myanmar government has been doing to solve this problem,” he said, adding that officials have been implementing the recommendations issued in August by a government-appointed advisory committee that examined religious and ethnic divisions in the restive region.
The committee, led by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, called for reviews of the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which prevents the stateless Rohingya from becoming citizens, and for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya to prevent further violence in the region.
“The international community needs to know that ARSA is trying to harm this beginning process, and it always does something whenever an important event takes place,” Zaw Htay said.
Rights groups and the international community have blasted Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, and the Myanmar army for denying that soldiers have committed atrocities against the Rohingya.
The NVC process
ARSA also accused the government of issuing “meaningless and illegitimate National Verification Cards” [NVCs] to the Rohingya and of preventing NGOs and media from entering the region.
In response, Zaw Htay said the government has been working on a citizenship process for undocumented people in Rakhine state, and that everybody has to be checked to determine whether they are eligible for citizenship.
“Nobody becomes a citizen automatically,” he said. “No country has a process like this. To become citizens, they have to have NVCs first.”
Once the Rohingya receive NVCs, they will be granted a status according to the law, such as guest citizens or people who can apply for citizenship, he said.
“But ARSA has hindered the NVC-issuing process and has killed those who have received NVCs and who are helping the government with the process,” Zaw Htay said.
“What they said about ARSA being left no other option but to engage in combat is totally wrong,” he said. “They can coordinate with the government.”
“Citizenship will not granted through terrorism,” he said. “No country accepts this way.”
Zaw Htay went on to say that if ARSA militants launched further attacks, they will get “what they deserve.”
Myanmar’s former information minister Ye Htut told RFA that ARSA is taking its fighting strategy to the next step.
“First, it provides training and weapons to local residents and carries out attacks with them,” he said. “Then, it uses guerrilla warfare, such as carrying out ambushes against the army troops.”
“If ARSA carries out more attacks, the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh will be delayed,” he said. “If it is delayed, Myanmar will receive more pressure from the international community.”
If that happens, ethnic Rakhine people will think they are under more pressure because of the Bengalis,” Ye Htut said, using a derogatory term for the Rohingya who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “Then there will be more problems between the ethnic Rakhine and Bengalis.”
Ye Htut also noted that ARSA at first attacked only police posts in the Aug. 25 assaults and border police stations in Oct. 2016 raids, but later carried out attacks on public roads.
“This means that public areas are becoming more dangerous,” he said. “That threatens not only police, but also security guards, army troops, and innocent civilians.”
To repel the threat from ARSA, the central government must work with the military, political parties, Rakhine parties, and Rakhine people, Ye Htut said.
“If they are not united and only get into arguments [with each other], then ARSA will be one more step ahead,” he said.
Maungdaw residents weigh in
Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy Party (NLD), said ARSA is trying to create a dangerous situation in northern Rakhine so that the Rohingya refugees do not return.
“But the Myanmar government is doing what it has to,” he told RFA. “The U.N. and international community should be careful. They always blame the Myanmar government. They should see that the government and military had to fight these terrorists back because they fought us.”
Kyaw Kyaw Win, a lawmaker in the upper house of the national parliament whose constituency encompasses Maungdaw township, expressed concern about effective security in the region, which was the epicenter of recent violence along with neighboring Buithdaung and Rathedaung townships.
“We have to be worried as long as there are Bengalis in the Maungdaw region,” he told RFA. “The important thing is the government has to work more on border security and the rule of law and take effective action against terrorists.”
“As long as the U.N., international community, and international NGOs support these Rohingya, ARSA will carry out more attacks in Rakhine state as it said it would in its statement,” he said.
Residents of Maungdaw echoed Kyaw Kyaw Win’s concern about further trouble in the area.
“We are worried because of what they [ARSA] said,” said Myint Swe, a Muslim resident of Maungdaw.
“Whenever these bad people do bad things, only good people get into trouble,” he said. “Because we Muslims are living together with other local ethnics peacefully, other Muslims [who support ARSA] might not like it, although they too are living with other local ethnics.”
“They could hurt us,” he said. “I am worried about this. It would be better if we had more security.”
Ashin Sandar Thiri, a Buddhist monk who lives in Maungdaw, said the government and military must protect local residents from any future ARSA attacks or else all the other ethnic people will flee the area.
Not everyone sees it that way.
Tun Khin, founder and president of the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), a group that raises awareness of the plight of the Rohingya, told RFA that police and the military are ensuring tight security in the region so that people cannot move around freely, even between villages.
He also expressed suspicions about the latest ARSA ambush, noting the security situation.
“[I]t is very difficult for people to go anywhere even just to get food,” he told RFA. “It is a question of how did people from ARSA travel in this manner to carry out the attack.”
When asked if he believes that ARSA’s commitment to engage in combat will be a barrier to repatriating Rohingya from Bangladesh, Tun Khin said that it depends on the government.
“If the government wants stability in Rakhine state, then it and the military can do it,” he said. “All Rohingya are living in an open prison. It is a question of whether the prisoners can attack police.”
“These refugees will return if they are granted rights to become citizens without being forced to accept NVCs and are given the right to getting an education, doing business, and traveling,” Tun Khin said.
“With what the Myanmar government is doing right now, I don’t think it’s possible for them to return any time soon,” he said.
Tun Khin also said that many Rohingya do not endorse the use of attacks or violence against the Myanmar military or government, as ARSA does.
“All Rohingya around the world want to solve our problems through peaceful means,” he said. “We have been doing this by pressuring the Myanmar government through advocacy and support from the international community.”
Reported by Thiha Tun, Thinn Thiri, Khin Khin Ei, and Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.