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Violence Escalates Between Myanmar Forces and Rohingya

Myanmar police officers patrolling last month in Maungdaw, Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh. The state has been under siege since armed assailants killed nine police officers in early October. Thein Zaw/Associated Press

By JANE PERLEZ and WAI MOE
November 13, 2016

SITTWE, Myanmar — Violence between a persecuted Muslim population and Myanmar security forces escalated over the weekend as two soldiers were killed by crudely armed attackers, according to government officials and Muslim residents. In retaliation, troops of the Buddhist-majority government burned villages deep in the forest.

The remote enclave of northern Rakhine State close to the Bangladesh border has been under siege since the government sent security forces to hunt for what it says were armed Rohingya assailants who killed nine police officers at three outposts in early October.

Since then, human rights groups have received reports of killings of unarmed Rohingya men by Myanmar soldiers; rapes in a number of villages of Rohingya women by soldiers; and beatings of Rohingya men held in detention in the town of Maungdaw. At least 30 Rohingya civilians, and possibly as many as 100, may have been killed, the groups say.

Western diplomats have called on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who leads the Myanmar government, to conduct an independent investigation into the violence. So far she has declined, allowing a Rakhine State committee to investigate. She has also urged that specific complaints be filed with a commission headed by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, that was formed in August.

Her spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said on Sunday that the latest attacks made it necessary for the military and police operation to continue until the culprits were arrested and the weapons they had seized were found. The troops have been instructed to respect human rights, he said.

The two soldiers, including a battalion commander, were killed on Saturday by attackers armed with guns, knives and spears near the village of Gwason, south of Maungdaw, the main town in northern Rakhine, said the state information officer, U San Nwe . Police reinforcements were flown to the area by helicopter, he said.

Also on Saturday, a police car was hit by a roadside mine near the village of Kyikanpyin, north of Maungdaw, where five of the nine police officers were killed on Oct. 9, said the Ministry of Information in Naypyidaw, the national capital. No one was killed in the episode on Saturday.

Reached by telephone in Maungdaw on Sunday, Mohammed Sultan, a retired Rohingya teacher, said he had heard from some students that their villages had been set on fire. “One of my pupils said he was hiding in the rice field,” Mr. Sultan said. The connection then went dead, he said.

High-definition satellite images, taken in late October and earlier this month, showed widespread burning of Rohingya villages, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Sunday.

Although relations between the Rohingya and the security forces have always been tense, the tactic of groups of Rohingya men attacking police stations, targeting security forces and apparently planting roadside bombs is new, government officials and Rohingya activists say.

The motivation for the increase in violence by what appears to be a small group of armed Rohingya men was not clear.

The government, providing little proof, immediately blamed two little-known groups: Aqa Mul Mujahidin and the Rohingya Solidarity Organization.

The decades-long repression of the Rohingya by the Myanmar authorities made the population of about one million Rohingya fertile ground for Islamic radicalization, activists and diplomats say.

Here in Sittwe, in the southern part of Rakhine, for example, more than 100,000 Rohingya have been kept in what amount to internment camps for four years, prevented from traveling and forbidden to reclaim their land and property burned down during communal violence in 2012.

The new round of violence north of Sittwe was worse than that four years ago, said Mohamed Saed, a community leader. “Then it was communal violence between two groups — Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists,” he said. “This is now direct government repression.”

Several Rohingya leaders said they did not believe Rohingya ties to radical jihadists were the cause of the attacks five weeks ago. New, harsh proposals by the government may have been the catalyst, they suggested.

In September, a Rakhine official, Col. Htein Lin, gave a speech saying the government would destroy all “illegally” built structures, including more than 2,500 houses, 600 shops, a dozen mosques and more than 30 schools.

U Kyaw Min, a Rohingya who is the chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, said, “That was saying we have to reduce the population of Rohingya, and push them over the border to Bangladesh.”

The attitude of officials in Rakhine State toward the Rohingya is unequivocal. They call the Rohingya “Bengalis,” implying that the Rohingya belong in Bangladesh.

A leader of the Arakan National Party, U Aung Win, said in an interview here that it had now become necessary to form a special paramilitary force.

The Rohingya, who make up more than 90 percent of the population in the northern part of Rakhine State, so outnumber the Rakhine Buddhists that more protection is needed for the Buddhist minority, he said. The two groups cannot live together, he insisted.

Mr. Aung Win is also the chairman of the Rakhine State investigation into the Oct. 9 attacks.

The Rohingya villages around Kyikanpyin have become armed camps, according to telephone conversations and text messages from villagers to friends in Sittwe. Food is scarce, and a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew is enforced, they say. In those areas, villagers say soldiers have raped women and stolen their jewelry.

Three women ages 23, 21 and 17 in the Basa Miya family were raped on Wednesday by soldiers who are living in the local school, said Mohamed Rahim, a village leader in Pyoung Pai, not far from Kyikanpyin.

“The villagers were told to gather in the rice fields, but the three girls were told to stay in the house with their mother,” he said in a telephone interview. “Before the rape, they told the mother to get out. I then saw the military enter the house.”

Myanmar officials have denied that rapes have occurred. “It’s not so easy to rape a Bengali woman,” Mr. Aung Win said. “All the Bengali villages are covered by bamboo netting and plastic.”

In a recent interview with the BBC, Mr. Aung Win said it was impossiblethat soldiers had raped the women because Rohingya “are very dirty.”

The question of the rapes is particularly sensitive. The Myanmar Times newspaper fired a journalist, Fiona MacGregor, for writing an article about alleged rapes of Rohingya women on Oct. 19.

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