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Calls Grow for Access to Western Myanmar in Face of Military Lockdown

Border police officers on patrol in Maungdaw Township, where much of the violence in Myanmar has taken place this month. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


By Mike Ives
October 26, 2016

HONG KONG — In the aftermath of violence this month in western Myanmar that has left scores of people dead, the authorities are facing mounting pressure to lift a weekslong military lockdown that advocacy groups say has trapped Muslims in their communities and largely prevented aid workers from helping them.

People in the northern part of Rakhine State have watched the Myanmar Army and the border police loot shops, rape women, burn homes and Qurans, and shoot unarmed people in the days and weeks since an attack this month on a guard post near the Bangladeshi border killed nine police officers, rights activists say. The United Nations, in a statement on Monday, urged the government to address “growing reports of human rights violations” in the area.

The violence this month has largely affected members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a stateless Muslim minority with roughly one million members in Rakhine State. The Rohingya have been unable to obtain Myanmar citizenship, even though many of their families have lived in the country for generations.

Much of northern Rakhine remained inaccessible to international relief agencies because of the military operations and travel restrictions, activists and aid workers said this week. They added that thousands of Rohingya people had not been permitted to leave their villages — even as some members of the Rakhine group, a Buddhist ethnic minority in Myanmar that has occasionally clashed with both the Rohingya and the government in recent years, have fled south to Sittwe, the provincial capital.

International nonprofit groups have been unable to reach those displaced by the violence and to offer humanitarian programs like basic health services, Marta Kaszubska, the coordinator of the INGO Forum Myanmar, a consortium of international nonprofit organizations in the country, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

“The longer this situation continues, the more vulnerable people will get, as food supplies dwindle and life-threatening health problems are left untreated,” she added.

But U Tin Maung Swe, the spokesman for the Rakhine government, disputed accounts of human rights violations. Reports of soldiers and border police officers killing and terrorizing villagers were untrue, he said in a brief telephone interview on Thursday, and the area had never been under lockdown.

“If you want to go, I will arrange access,” he said.

Reports of human rights violations in northern Rakhine could not be independently verified. Mr. Tin Maung Swe declined to elaborate on why he believed they were untrue.

The European Commission reported last week that 10,000 internally displaced Rohingya people were confined in coastal Maungdaw Township, where much of the violence has taken place this month, and that 1,000 Rakhine people had been relocated from northern Rakhine State to a new refugee camp on a soccer field in Sittwe. It said that 2,000 other Rakhine people were sheltering in monasteries, temples and schools in Maungdaw and neighboring Buthidaung Township.

A spasm of violence between Rohingya and Rakhine people in the Sittwe area in 2012 that killed dozens displaced more than 100,000 people. The vast majority of those are Rohingya, but some are Rakhine. They now live separately in refugee camps along Sittwe’s rural fringes.

People displaced by fighting were evacuated to a Buddhist monastery in Maungdaw this month. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Naing Min, a Rohingya villager in northern Rakhine, said he had witnessed border police officers and Myanmar Army soldiers driving people out of War Pate, a village in Maungdaw Township, in recent days.

“Then they’re burning the houses,” Mr. Naing Min said by telephone on Thursday. “I’ve seen this from a half-mile away.”

Abdul Rasheed, a Rohingya activist in Yangon, Myanmar’s cultural and business capital, said his contacts in northern Rakhine had documented 119 rapes and the burning or demolition of 700 to 800 homes since the attack this month on the border post. More than 200 people there had also been killed by the authorities or disappeared, he added, and many others were wounded by gunfire but unable to find medical treatment. He said he based his assessment on telephone conversations with more than 20 people in the area.

Mr. Rasheed said he worried that the military’s response to the initial attack may only aggravate the grievances that many Rohingya have harbored against the Myanmar government for years, driving them to further violence.

“Many people may resist against this lawless action,” he said in a WhatsApp message on Thursday. “Could be harmful for our people.”

Videos have circulated online this month that appear to show groups of heavily armed Rohingya men calling for jihad against the authorities. Activists and government officials say the videos appear to be authentic. But Fortify Rights, an advocacy group in Southeast Asia, has said the videos are unusual and should not be taken as signs of widespread militancy among Muslims in the area.

Chris Lewa, a Rohingya rights advocate in Thailand, said that shootings and house burnings had appeared to taper off in northern Rakhine but that the authorities were now arresting community and religious leaders, many of whom had not yet been released.

“What exactly happens to them once they get arrested?” Ms. Lewa asked. “We’re of course concerned they would be tortured.”

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for investigations into the violence in northern Rakhine and cautioned against making accusations without evidence. Other officials have denied any wrongdoing.

“We haven’t done anything lawless,” U Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Myanmar’s president, U Htin Kyaw, said in response to the statement by the United Nations, according to the Irrawaddy, a website and magazine that covers Myanmar.

The United Nations World Food Program, which provides food assistance for tens of thousands in Rakhine, said that it had begun distributing cash assistance on Wednesday to 20,000 people from vulnerable households in Buthidaung Township and that several schools in Buthidaung and Maungdaw had reopened after being closed this month.

But an official at the agency, Arsen Sahakyan, said that the planned distribution of food supplements to 17,000 pregnant women, nursing mothers and malnourished children in areas only accessible by river was delayed and that the agency would resume giving food to 50,000 people in Maungdaw once the area became accessible. It was also “assessing the feasibility,” he added, of resuming a program that normally feeds 65,000 students.

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