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Nay Pyi Taw boosts Rakhine border budget amid security, abuse fears

By Bill O’Toole
November 21, 2014

The national parliament has approved a massive increase in funding for security on the border between Rakhine State and Bangladesh, amid growing concerns about insurgent and possibly terrorist activity in the area.

Late last month, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw approved a K37 billion, or US$35 million, increase in spending for border security, MPs said, as part of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ supplementary budget request. The increase more than doubled spending on security in the area, from the K37 billion approved in the original 2014-15 budget.

In a sign of the perceived importance of the issue, MPs approved the ministry’s supplementary request, despite it being 12.75 percent of its original budget – above the 10pc limit that parliament normally sets for supplementary budgets.

RNP Pyithu Hluttaw representative U Pe Than said that while he welcomed the extra money, he did not think it would be enough to properly secure the “porous” border, while party leader U Aye Maung said last week the RNP would request additional funds in the 2015-16 budget.

According to lawmakers, the new funds will mostly be used to build a fence along the 271-kilometre border and increase the strength of Border Guard Police in northern Rakhine State.

State and national parliamentarians from the Rakhine National Party told The Myanmar Times that they had been seeking more funding for security for several months because of growing concerns about insurgent activity, including attacks on border police.

Tension on the border has increased markedly this year. Border Guard Police patrols in northern Maungdaw township were attacked in February and May, with four officers killed on May 17. Shortly afterward, fighting broke out between Myanmar and Bangladesh border forces and one Bangladeshi soldier was killed. The Myanmar government has blamed the attacks on the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), an insurgent group formed in the early 1980s.

Tensions escalated further in the first week of September when the head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the launch of a new branch in South Asia to “wage Jihad against its enemies” in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh and “revive the caliphate”.

As a result of the security concerns, authorities began restricting humanitarian access to parts of northern Rakhine State in mid-July, according to a recent International Crisis Group report.

The report, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, said that the RSO was considered “defunct” by most regional security experts and there is “no evidence to support Myanmar’s claims that the RSO is responsible for the attacks on its security forces in northern Rakhine State”.

While “there appear to be efforts underway in the wake of the 2012 violence to rehabilitate the group as an armed organisation” there “are serious obstacles to its success”, the ICG said, particularly because most Rohingya do not see violence as a solution to their problems.

Insurgency is not the only concern for RNP politicians, however. They say the increased security is needed to also prevent inward illegal migration from Bangladesh.

Rohingya politicians and advocates say the real migration issue in Rakhine State is Muslims fleeing from the strife-torn state. Since the end of the monsoon season in October, several international and Southeast Asian media outlets have ran reports of a “mass exodus” of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Rakhine State in unsafe boats, often bound for further exploitation and trafficking in other countries.

Chris Lewa, executive director of the advocacy group The Arakan Project, said her organisation had received reports that Border Guard Police are driving the Rohingyas to flee the area.

She said trusted sources and researchers had described a “huge campaign” of arbitrary arrests by the BGP. While arbitrary arrests have regularly occurred in the past, she said, they were “not in the numbers that we have now”.

“It seems to us that this is no coincidence that this is just happening during the sailing season, just to encourage people [to leave] and create fear,” she said

Tight controls over access to and communication with northern Rakhine State make the reports difficult to verify and the Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.

For several decades, security was handled by Na Sa Ka, a border guard force that was routinely accused of abuses against Rohingya communities. It was abruptly disbanded in July 2013, with most of the security duties falling to the BGP.

U Shwe Maung, a member of the Pyithu Hluttaw from Buthidaung and a self-described Rohingya, said that his constituents have told him that the BGP has a worse reputation than Na Sa Ka.

“People are still reporting that they apply more pressure than Na Sa Ka, especial in Maungdaw,” said U Shwe Maung, who is based in Yangon for most of the year.

He said he had no issue with efforts to promote security on the border but was worried about how it would be implemented.

More security forces could be positive the state if it was accompanied by proper oversight.

“I’m concerned about increased troops may lead to more problems,” he said. “The government should make sure that these troops really safeguard the country.” 

Additional reporting by Lun Min Mang and Htoo Thant

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