Nine Myanmar police officers were killed in coordinated attacks by insurgents on posts along the border with Bangladesh early yesterday, an official and police said.
No one has claimed responsibility but a senior local Myanmar official pointed the finger at a militant group from the Muslim Rohingya minority that has been dormant for years.
The assaults hit three border posts around 1:30am near Maungdaw township in Rakhine State, simmering with tensions between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas, who are forced to live in dire conditions.
“Altogether nine police were killed, four others were injured and one is still missing,” U Tin Maung Swe, a senior official within Rakhine’s state government, told AFP.
He added that eight insurgents were also killed in the attacks.
Police in the capital Nay Pyi Taw confirmed the attack and said multiple weapons were seized by the assailants.
U Tin Maung Swe said the attackers were “RSO insurgents”, a reference to a group known as the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation.
He did not elaborate on how he knew this.
The RSO was a small Rohingya militant group active in the 1980s and 1990s but is not believed to have been active in more recent years.
A 2014 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, citing regional security experts’ consensus, described the RSO as largely defunct, but added that “there appear to be efforts under way in the wake of the 2012 violence to rehabilitate the group as an armed organisation”.
While highlighting obstacles to any successful attempt to revive the RSO, the report added a warning.
“Even if the RSO is not a credible military threat, the group’s very existence could be used as an easy justification for increased discrimination against Muslims in Rakhine State,” it said. “This is a real risk given Myanmar’s bitter experience with multiple domestic insurgencies and its abiding sense of insecurity.”
In May attackers stormed a security post at a camp for Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, just across the border from Maungdaw. A Bangladeshi camp commander was shot dead and the attackers made off with weapons.
Police at the time said the Rohingya themselves could be suspects.
In recent years Bangladeshi police have also alleged that Rohingya refugees are involved in criminal activities including human trafficking.
Any rise in violence in Rakhine will be a major concern for the new civilian-led government of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
She has asked former UN chief Kofi Annan to head a commission tasked with trying to heal sectarian divisions in the state. The move was largely welcomed by Rohingya community leaders but angered Buddhist nationalists.
Meanwhile, uneasy residents in Maungdaw township said they fear for their safety in the wake of the shootings.
“We are fearful because we heard several shootings since 1:30am. We also heard that weapons have gone missing so it heightens our anxiety, and now the entire town dares not go outside,” said Daw Thein Than from Maungdaw’s Kan Nyin Tan ward.
Shops in downtown Maungdaw remained shuttered yesterday and security personnel have sealed off all but one entrance into the town.
Rakhine State was wracked in 2012 by violence between Buddhists and Muslims that displaced more than 100,000 people, most of them self-identifying Rohingya.
A curfew in Maungdaw district, which has been imposed from 11pm to 4am since the 2012 violence, has been broadened to the hours of 7pm to 6am. According to U Hla Myint, Maungdaw township administrator, section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure has been invoked in Maungdaw and neighbouring Buthidaung townships, outlawing public assemblies. U Hla Myint said the two townships have become increasingly militarised.
“Naval forces have closed the waterways. The air force has also arrived by helicopters. The army and police force are working together to clear the area,” said U Hla Myint.
Unlike most of Rakhine State, Maungdaw is a majority-Muslim township. According to an August report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 1378 IDPs living in nine camps in the township as of July 1. State-wide, the OCHA report put the number living in IDP camps at just under 120,000.
Additional reporting by Yee Ywal Myint, translation by Thiri Min Htun and Zar Zar Soe