Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state in the west of the country has been gripped by violence since last October, after militants attacked police posts, killing nine guards. The military launched a bloody crackdown in a response that the UN believes may have amounted to ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingya who live in the area. That campaign was suddenly stopped earlier this year. But reports of sporadic violence have persisted.
The Rakhine issue — the violence against civilians, both Muslims and Buddhists — has raised fears of fresh major violence as — with periodic attacks on villagers growing. The UN in Myanmar recently privately warned aid workers and civil society organisations working in Rakhine of rising hostility and imminent protests by the state’s majority Buddhists, some of whom claim humanitarian agencies are giving support to Rohingya Muslim militants.
Attacks on villagers in the past few weeks has not abated and given rise to growing fears that widespread violence may indeed engulf Rakhine. The worst incident was about 10 days ago, when six ethnic Mro were killed in Maungdaw — one of the larger towns in Rakhine. Hundreds of villages have since fled, amid increasing panic in the area. The Mayu mountain range has been the centre of the Myanmar army’s operations over the last few months. In June, the security forces killed three suspected militants during a two-day operation. According to several Asian intelligence sources some 300 Muslim Rohingya may have been undergoing foreign-funded training — using automatic rifles — in the Mayu mountains.
In response to calls from local politicians the Myanmar military airdropped hundreds of troops into the country’s strife-torn state in preparation for a major surgical operation intended to route out accused Muslim rebels and insurgents, according to military sources. The deployment of the 33rd Light Infantry Division commenced a week last Thursday. Since then they have conducted regular sorties in the area, according to local eyewitnesses.
The Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, has also given orders to villagers in northern Rakhine to avoid entering the Mayu mountain range to the north, as they conduct clearance operations in the region. This is where the military believes there are “terrorists” holed up, conducting military training courses. The government’s security forces have been carrying out counter insurgency operations around here for months, searching for suspected Muslim militants in the region, according to military sources. Now with the addition of more than 500 troops these operations have been ratcheted up.
Last weekend, the authorities extended a curfew that was already in place in the township. At the same time state media also reported that the government had imposed new curfews, to be set “in necessary areas” as the army beefs up its “clearance operations”.
The military operation comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Myanmar government, faced with a barrage of international criticism and demands by the UN to allow a special investigation into the military’s conduct in Rakhine — and allegations by Rohingya villagers of systematic rape, murder and arson at the hands of soldiers — during last year’s security mop up, in response to a series of attacks on police border guard posts.
More than 70,000 Muslim villagers fled across the border to Bangladesh in the wake of the October attacks and the subsequent military crackdown. Subsequent UN missions in Rakhine have concluded that it may even have amounted to “ethnic cleansing”, and warrants further investigation. The government has strenuously denied the allegations. And more recently has accused insurgents of murdering and abducting dozens of villagers, who they perceived to be government collaborators.
The violence escalated further recently, the worst, a week or so ago when six ethnic Mro were killed in Maungdaw. Hundreds of villages have since fled, amid increasing panic in the area. The Mayu mountain range has been the centre of the Tatmadaw’s operations over the last few months. In June, the security forces killed three suspected militants during a two-day operation.
The insurgents, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, were little known until they claimed responsibility for the October raids on the police posts. The group says it is fighting to advance the rights of the Rohingya, but has denied killing civilians in statements issued through an unverified Twitter account.
According to regional intelligence sources, vast amounts of money and arms are being funnelled to the Rohingya, largely through the border town of Mae Sot on the Thai border with Myanmar. The intelligence sources though are unclear whether the weapons — alleged supplies left over from the Cambodian conflict decades ago — are reaching their intended destination. Some Myanmar military sources have indicated that they have intercepted some of these supplies, but there is no public confirmation of this.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, according to the intelligence sources. Before last October’s attacks, Myanmar intelligence sources believed that at least 200 Rohingya have periodically slipped into neighbouring Bangladesh since early 2013 for training — in political organisation, advocacy and self-defence, including the use of arms, funded by Saudi benefactors.
While it is impossible to verify the veracity of these intelligence claims, the increase in violence in Northern Rakhine suggests there is no smoke without fire. At least the Myanmar military are convinced, and are committed to ramping up their counter insurgency efforts there and completely root out the alleged “terrorists”.
The army commander has made it clear — that this time at least — they are responding to the demands of local residents. A day before the troop airlift, the commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met leading Arakan National Party (ANP) politicians in Nay Pyi Taw and assured them that the Tatmadaw would not stand idly by and let the violence go unchallenged. The Arakan politicians asked for security to be beefed up and more troops deployed, to which he responded almost immediately.
As the army commander dispatched reinforcements to Rakhine, the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi convened a meeting of the newly formed Rakhine security committee to discuss the situation in the state, which comprised relevant national ministers — including the three ministers from the army, Border Affairs, Defence and Home affairs — regional ministers and the state counsellor’s national security adviser Thaung Tun. There was no mention of the launched military operation in their statement on Facebook, after their meeting concluded.
It would seem that the Commander-in-Chief ordered this major surgical operation, against Rohingya rebels and alleged insurgents in Rakhine, without directly consulting the Lady.
This was his constitutional prerogative, as it was regarded as a military matter and does not need civilian approval, according to sources close to Min Aung Hlaing. Since the very first days of the NLD government, the two leaders — Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing — have had a clear understanding on how they would work together: the army chief would take the lead in security matters, while the Lady was responsible for the rest, said a former senior military officer.
Of course, both understand that the Rakhine issue is beyond being a strictly internal security matter and deeply affects international relations. But the problem is that there is no direct formal channel for consultation between the country’s two real leaders, other than the National Defence and Security Council, which met six weeks previously — at which the situation in Rakhine was discussed. Although there is no direct channel for the two to discuss operational matters, this campaign was consistent with both their clear understanding and clear terms of engagement, noted a senior retired general.
But according to sources close to the government, Aung San Suu Kyi was indeed aware of the pending operation. Intermediaries informed her, according to military sources: the Vice President, Myint Swe and the defence minister and the interior minister.
However it also does not mean she is happy with this situation. Like the Rohingya villagers, she is concerned to avoid a repeat of the human rights abuses that accompanied the military’s previous counter insurgency operation in Rakhine.
This also concerns the UN special rapporteur Yangkee Lee, who reported on the earlier situation in Rakhine. After reports of the latest deployment of troops to Rakhine, she issued a statement raising “serious concerns” about the the latest military operation in Rakhine. But most activists and international human rights organisations are calling on Aung San Suu Kyi to be more resolute.
“Aung San Suu Kyi needs to use some of her prestige and popularity to fight back, starting with embracing credible efforts to investigate military abuses and demand the Tatmadaw permit prosecutions of those found to be involved,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told the Bangkok Post.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service New Editor for the region.
SOURCE: Bangkok Post