Hundreds of Bangladeshis from the mainly Buddhist, ethnic Rakhine minority group staged a rare, if not unprecedented, protest over the weekend against Myanmar’s alleged military aggression in Rakhine state, saying their community there faces operations aimed at ethnic cleansing, much like the stateless Rohingya.
An armed conflict between Myanmar government forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for the Rakhine people, intensified in early 2019. This past March, Myanmar declared it a terrorist organization.
Some participants in Sunday’s protest told BenarNews that they support AA's activities.
“The Myanmar military, in a premeditated fashion, has been conducting a serious military operation targeting the civilian population in Rakhine state with a view to obliterate the whole Rakhine nation,” Kyawo Nyin Rakhine, the organizer of the protest, told BenarNews.
He said it was the first time that Rakhine who live in Bangladesh were holding such a protest in Dhaka against Myanmar’s army.
“They have mobilized the heavily armed infantry, navy and air force for their operation. The Rakhine Community of Bangladesh is united in urging the international community to pressure Myanmar so 4 million Rakhine people in Rakhine state can be saved,” he said, referring to the 16,000-strong community.
In June, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report that AA rebels were spurred by extreme poverty in Rakhine, as well as a perception of political marginalization felt by the ethnic Rakhine community.
The conflict between AA and Myanmar state forces has led to more than 1,000 casualties in a little under two years, and displaced more than 80,000 people, according to rights groups and the United Nations.
Bangladeshi Rakhine leaders said that most of those killed in the armed conflict were ethnic Rakhine, but the casualties also included Rohingya and some other ethnicities.
About 200 homes and other buildings were destroyed by fire in May, said Human Rights Watch, adding that satellite imagery showed “a close resemblance to patterns of fires and widespread arson attacks by the Myanmar military on ethnic Rohingya villages in Rakhine [s]tate in 2012, 2016 and 2017."
“At least 260,000 people have taken shelter in the Rakhine jungle as the military also burned the homes of the people,” Maung Chit Hree, president of the Rakhine Culture Group, told BenarNews.
He said the conflict would lead to another influx of refugees into Bangladesh, in addition to the 740,000 Rohingya who arrived in 2017, and this time those fleeing would be Rakhine.
“If they cannot stay there, they would have no other option but to leave the country. As it is the nearest place, they would think of coming to Bangladesh,” Maung Chit Hree said.
Close to 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in camps in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district after fleeing from cycles of violence next-door in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Support for Arakan Army
Some of the protesters told BenarNews that they support the Arakan Army because they believe it represents the ethnic Rakhine
“Arakan Army is an organization of common people in Rakhine. The people living there support it. They consider the Arakan Army as the protector of their lives and property,” Tun Nyo Rakhine, a Rakhine community leader, told BenarNews.
“The Rakhine people have been fighting for independence since 1784. Arakan Army is the outcome of the fight. They have been fighting to regain the lost independence and sovereignty of Arakan.”
The Burmese conquered the Rakhine kingdom in 1785.
Maung Chit Hree, the Rakhine Culture Group leader, called the Arakan Army freedom fighters.
“Arakan Army has been fighting for freedom. None in Arakan would oppose them. They do not torture the common people,” he told BenarNews.
However, this open support for the Arakan Army displeased some in Bangladesh.
Tareque Shamsur Rehman, a professor of international relations, said such a show of support for the armed group was not right and could hurt prospects of repatriation for Rohingya refugees.
“The Rakhine people in Bangladesh deserve the right to protest military operations against the Rakhine people in Rakhine state. But supporting the Arakan Army under the pretext of a protest march is unacceptable. Bangladeshi people never support any terrorist outfits, including the Arakan Army,” Rehman told BenarNews.
“This type of protest can give Myanmar a further excuse to delay the Rohingya repatriation.”
Rehman was referring to a claim made by Myanmar at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) rebel group, also known by its former name Harakah al-Yaqin, and the Arakan Army had found sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh.
Bangladesh responded by saying there was no ARSA or Arakan Army presence in the country.
But in February, government and police sources privately acknowledged to BenarNews that they had arrested “several” ARSA insurgents in the previous months. Last month, many Rohingya refugees told BenarNews that members of ARSA were the ones taking their compatriots captive for ransom.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.