The situation in Myanmar’s volatile Maungdaw township will be peaceful only after all weapons stolen from border guard posts during deadly attacks in early October have been recovered, a Rakhine state government official said Thursday.
Colonel Htein Lin, minister of border affairs and security in northern Rakhine state, told reporters at the state government headquarters in Sittwe that it is necessary for people in the region to work together to recover the weapons taken by assailants during raids on three border guard stations on Oct. 9, and to arrest other insurgents.
Htein Lin said insurgents pretended to be local villagers so they could conduct surprise strikes on security forces that moved into Maungdaw after the initial attack to look for the assailants who killed nine border officers and stole more than 50 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The state minister had met with a group of 13 journalists from independent news organizations, including RFA’s Myanmar Service, that the government selected to visit the violence-ravaged area. The reporters made stops in Alethankyaw village in Maungdaw and a border guard post in Koetankaut Village in neighboring Rathedaung township that insurgents attacked in October.
The government allowed the group of journalists into the area after several international rights organizations, the United Nations, and Western governments called on it to do so, so that reporters from non-state news organizations could investigate reports of atrocities committed by soldiers.
Government officials have blamed the attacks and subsequent clashes between villagers and security forces on “militant” Rohingya Muslims who live in the region.
Some of the 27,000 Rohingya who have fled their homes and crossed the border into nearby Bangladesh have accused security forces of killing civilians, and of torture, rape and arson, though the Myanmar government and army have denied the charges.
A border guard official on Wednesday told the group of journalists that Muslims from Bangladesh also had a hand in the violence, and a government committee that visited the area last week declared that the military clearance operations had been lawfully conducted.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday issued video testimony of Rohingya accounts of human rights abuses inflicted by soldiers in the areas affected by violence and called on the government to allow unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of northern Rakhine to provide food, shelter, and health care to those who lack them.
The organization interviewed 12 Rohingya refugees who recently arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing Maungdaw. In video testimony, they describe various atrocities committed by soldiers, including using automatic weapons in villages, looting and burning homes and crops, shooting farm animals, killing entire families, and raping women and girls.
One Rohingya refugee, a 50-year-old woman named Rohima, said Myanmar soldiers entered her home in Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son village, tied up her husband, and shot him dead. They also dragged her four adult sons out of the house and killed them, while she and other women in the dwelling were forced into another house upon which soldiers fired rocket launchers, she said.
Rohima survived and said the soldiers set her house on fire, then rampaged through the village attacking children with knives and throwing them into a fire with other burning bodies.
“Refugee accounts paint a horrific picture of an army that is out of control and rampaging through Rohingya villages,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, in a statement.
“The Burmese government says its crackdown is in response to a security threat, but what security advantage could possibly be gained by raping and killing women and children?” he asked.
HRW has previously released satellite images that show about 1,500 of structures burned down in several Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine where the military conducted security sweeps.
Meanwhile, a United Nations adviser on Thursday said he fears the situation in Myanmar may get out of hand, and urged the government to do more to address the historic divide between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine.
Vijay Nambiar, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Myanmar, told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency that the Oct. 9 border guard attacks in the state had revealed “a deep-seated malaise in the place itself.”
Nambiar called on Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to work with the military to resolve the tensions, which have not been helped by a “somewhat knee-jerk” reaction from the army and local authorities in dealing with communal violence.
“Whenever they face this threat, they automatically want to close the entire situation, seal up the situation, and deal with the threat and the problem,” he was quoted as saying. “That in the past has resulted in the problem actually festering.”
“[Aung San Suu Kyi] has to work with the army and the army has to work with her,” he said. “She needs to be a little more assertive in taking action to reassure both the local population and international community, and I have confidence that she will do that.”
“I do feel and I am convinced that her intentions are to actually solve the larger problems,” he said.
The recent violence in Rakhine is the worst since 2012 when communal clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
The stateless Rohingya, considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, were later forced into internally displaced persons camps where about 120,000 remain today. They are routinely discriminated against by the government, which has denied them citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to jobs, education, and health services.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.