Tuesday, July 25, 2017

‘No choice but to shoot them,’ official says of Rakhine manhunt for militants

A senior military official yesterday defended security forces’ use of lethal force in Rakhine State, saying recent killings were an appropriate response in cases where they have encountered weapons-wielding hostiles.

Border Guard Police patrol along the border with Bangladesh on October 15. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Myanmar TimesBorder Guard Police patrol along the border with Bangladesh on October 15. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times

Colonel Zaw Min Tun of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief was speaking at a press conference in Nay Pyi Taw to address the coordinated October 9 assault on Myanmar Border Police posts in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships and the ongoing manhunt for the perpetrators that has followed.

“In this case, they attacked police who are working for regional peace and stability and the rule of law. We protect the lives of police,” said Col Zaw Min Tun, referring to several killings over the past week as security forces have cracked down in the majority-Muslim region. “Their attacks would seriously impact regional peace and stability, and the rule of law ... Thus, we have no choice but to shoot them.”

All told, 30 “attackers”, including two women, have been killed by security forces, said Major General Aung Soe, deputy minister for home affairs. Casualties have also included five military members and the nine police officers killed in the original attack. Authorities have so far detained 12 suspected militants, including two men arrested across the border and transferred into custody by Bangladesh, according to Maj Gen Aung Soe.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times yesterday, Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe offered a differing tally of detainees, putting the figure at 16.

Most if not all of the suspected attackers are self-identifying Rohingya Muslims, with the President’s Office last week describing the attacks as “intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority-Muslim population in the area”.

According to an October 14 statement from the President’s Office that identified the perpetrators as belonging to a group called Aqa Mul Mujahidin, “The attacks in Maungdaw township were systematically planned in advance over a long period of time, assisted by foreign funding and the support of members of foreign terrorist organisations.”

Nearly 400 militants could owe allegiance to Aqa Mul Mujahidin, said the statement, identifying the group’s leader as Havistoohar, a militant from Kyaukpyinseik village, Maungdaw township, with previous training from the Taliban in Pakistan.

Yesterday senior cabinet official U Kyaw Tint Swe said he had spoken to the Indonesian ambassador about the unfolding crackdown in northern Rakhine State and had received his support and a pledge that Jakarta would respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and would not seek to interfere in a domestic matter. ASEAN’s other majority-Muslim member states also supported the security operation now under way, he added.

The Bangladeshi embassy in Yangon released a statement on October 16 offering condolences to the slain and its support and continued cooperation with Myanmar authorities.

Lt Gen Kyaw Swe sounded a tough line this week, saying there would be zero tolerance for anti-government militancy in Rakhine State.

“This is a combat area,” he told The Myanmar Times. “Therefore we must be operating intensively. We must not accept any aggression unequivocally.”

“We must operate to get back the arms and seek justice for those who killed our guards,” he added, referring to dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition seized by the militants during the October 9 raids.

Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships – where the attacks on three Border Guard Police took place – as well as Buthidaung township have been designated “operational areas” for the military. Section 144 has also been invoked for the region, banning all forms of public assembly.

State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last week pledged to handle the situation in Rakhine State “fairly” and in accordance with the rule of law, but a group of 16 Rohingya advocacy groups released a statement on October 16 that alleged authorities’ security crackdown has been rife with human rights abuses that amounted to “crimes against humanity”.

Click image to view full size. Source: UNOCHAClick image to view full size. Source: UNOCHA

“Since 9 October, under the pretext of looking for attackers, the Myanmar military and police forces have been indiscriminately killing the Rohingya, torching and plundering their homes and villages,” read a joint statement from the groups. “Two mass graves were found and about 100 Rohingya civilians were extra-judicially killed that included old men, women and children.”

The statement did not attribute its allegations to a specific source.

State media has also reported the burning of some villages in Maungdaw township, but the official explanation was that the arson was perpetrated by militants.

The government has sought to tightly control the flow of information coming out of Rakhine State, fearing that the spread of unchecked rumours could lead to the kind of inter-religious violence that wracked the state in 2012.

Yesterday’s edition of state-run The Global New Light of Myanmar offered no new reporting on the latest developments in the troubled region.

At least one individual has been penalised for the apparent security lapse on October 9, with a police brigadier general in charge of the Border Guard Police transferred from his post this week. Schools across Maungdaw and Buthidaung remain closed and a curfew is in effect from 7pm to 6am.

Fear of more violence has prompted some in areas affected by the conflict to send their wives and children to the state capital Sittwe.

“Displaced people started arriving in Sittwe four days ago. At the beginning the number was not too many but now there are more than 800. It seems the number will continue to rise,” said U Thein Tun from a Rakhine social coordination committee. Monasteries in the state capital are temporarily sheltering those who have fled.

About two-thirds of the displaced are children, and Daw San Thein Nu from Aung Tharyar village said the journey to Sittwe had been marked by hardship.

“There are many children among the displaced people. Some are even infants. We waited for three days in Buthidaung to buy a ferry ticket to travel to Sittwe. There are people who are getting stuck there because the ferry is already packed,” she said.

Some expressed hope that they could return, if not to their homes then to displacement camps closer to their villages.

“If refugee camps are opened in Buthidaung and Maungdaw, we just want to go back because we don’t want our family living apart,” said Daw San Thein Aung from Aung Mingalar.

Most of the displaced acknowledge, however, that the situation at present is still too unstable for an immediate return.

The Rakhine State government and private donors have provided rice, cooking oil and salt, as well as waterproof canvases and some money to the displaced, said U Thein Tun, while adding that concerns remain about sanitation and shortages of drinking water and medicine.

Additional reporting by Pyae Thet Phyo and Yee Ywal Mint, translation by Thiri Min Htun and Zar Zar Soe