Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday said the government will handle the turbulent situation in the country's western Rakhine state fairly and according to the rule of law following violent raids on border guard posts earlier this week and ensuing clashes between security forces and armed men.
“We are not going to accuse anybody until we know clearly [who is behind the attack] and have solid evidence,” she said during a joint press conference with visiting Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders.
Nine border officers and eight assailants died in the raids by unknown assailants early Sunday in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships, where many of the country’s stateless Rohingya Muslim minority group live.
Myanmar army troops and local border guards have been deployed in the area to search homes in Muslim villages for the assailants and weapons that were stolen from the border posts during the attacks.
This has led to clashes between armed men and security forces that have forced schools to close and prompted residents fearing worse violence to flee to safety.
In all, nearly 40 people, including military soldiers, attackers and the border guards killed in Sunday’s raids, died as of Wednesday, according to state media reports and other official sources.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, sent a mission of Union government officials to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on Tuesday to inform people about the situation and instill calm after the border post attacks.
At the joint press conference, she said that the members of the mission set out by boat on Tuesday morning to reach the areas where the attacks occurred because they could not go there by helicopter.
She also said the officials would return by Saturday and report their findings to government leaders, but until then she would decline to comment on the current situation.
“We can’t decide what the effects are going to be until we know what has been happening,” she said.
As to whether the situation will affect Muslims in Rakhine, also known as Arakan state, Aung San Suu Kyi said it will have an impact on them to a certain extent because some of them are now engaged in clashes between armed groups of Muslims and national army troops.
Despite this, she said that the government hopes "that out of all this will emerge something better and stronger, and a greater dedication to peace and stability.”
‘People are worried’
Ethnic tension runs high in Rakhine state where 1.1 stateless Muslim Rohingya suffer persecution because they are considered illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and referred to as “Bengalis.”
Communal violence between the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in 2012 left 200 people dead and forced tens of thousands of Rohingya into squalid refugee camps where they are denied basic rights, including that of citizenship.
In late August, Aung San Suu Kyi appointed former United Nations chief Kofi Annan to lead a Rakhine advisory commssion tasked with reviewing conflict resolution between Buddhists and Rohingya, humanitarian assistance, and development issues in the impoverished and divided state.
Koenders, who is on a three-day trip to Myanmar to open the new Dutch embassy in Yangon and meet with representatives of Dutch businesses and Myanmar government leaders, visited refugee camps in Sittwe on Tuesday.
In the meantime, the team of government officials, including Information Minister Pe Myint and Labor, Immigrations and Population Minister Thein Swe, has met with residents of Maungdaw township to try to allay their fears.
“Of course, people are worried, especially this time,” said Rakhine chief minister Nyi Pu, who is accompanying the ministers. “But, I want to urge you not to worry too much. It would be dangerous if people did or said something that they shouldn’t out of fear and worry.”
Army and local police forces are continuing their manhunt for those involved in the attacks by searching homes in Muslim villages in Maungdaw.
“We hear women’s shouting from Bengali villages, but our village is OK because we have a border guard group in the village,” Maungdaw resident Kyaw Soe Moe told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday.
“Almost all the women and children have moved to safer places in Maungdaw or Sittwe, but the men have stayed in their villages,” he said. “Security forces said that they are providing security for the villages although the residents haven't seen them.”
Kyaw Soe Moe also said that residents cannot go anywhere or do anything, so they are eating what food they have on hand.
“It’s OK for a little while, but we will be in trouble if it takes too long,” he said. “We can’t say how long this situation will last.”
Protection for ethnic Rakhine people
The Arakan National Party (ANP)—a political party that represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people—asked government ministers to protect ethnic Rakhine villages in Maungdaw and provide residents with food.
“We asked the Union ministers to protect ethnic Rakhine villages in Maungdaw because local residents are afraid for their safety,” said Tha Htun Hla, secretary of the ANP’s central executive committee.
The ANP said additional security guards should be deployed in the area because the attack on the border posts constituted a threat to the state’s sovereignty, he said.
The ANP and Rakhine Buddhists have denounced the government’s Rakhine advisory commission and called for its disbandment because they believe that the three foreign members on the nine-member panel will side with the Rohingya and turn the issue into an international one.
Muslim civil society organizations in Myanmar issued a statement on Wednesday denouncing the attacks in Maungdaw and expressed their condolences for the border guards who were killed.
They also said in the statement that they stand behind the Myanmar government and people.
“We are not talking about religion; a terrorist is a terrorist,” said Dali Myint, a member of the aid group Social Alliance. “Their actions make people in Myanmar worried and have ruined peace in the country. That’s why we have denounced what they did in the statement.”
Reported by Win Naung Toe, Kyaw Soe Lin, Min Thein Aung and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.