Many of the villages in northern Rakhine State where the military has been conducting “clearance operations” since October remain empty, with some citing “anxiety” as the reason for the continued absence.
More than 30,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled the area since the Tatmadaw poured into the border territory, with some 27,000 crossing into neighbouring Bangladesh since November, according to UN agencies. The Tatmadaw has been sweeping the area for suspected “insurgents” responsible for a series of lethal raids on border outposts. More than 500 suspects have been rounded up, several of whom have died in custody, according to official numbers from the government.
While the operations zone has been under lockdown since the attacks, with access severely restricted, the government has allowed a 13-member press junket, including The Myanmar Times, to tour the area this week.
Yesterday Police Brigadier General Thura San Lwin from the Kyee Kan Pyin Border Guard Office confirmed that many of the villagers from northern Rakhine – which unlike the rest of the state is majority Muslim – have yet to return. He said a team of immigration officials, border guard police and township administration representatives are collecting data about the current occupancy of the villages.
“We have already finished collecting data from over 450 villages out of 905. Many of the residents have not returned yet,” he said.
According to some village leaders in Maungdaw district, thousands are still unaccounted for.
U Khuu Lu Myar, 70, is a village elder from Ngakhura, where one of the initial attacks on the border guard posts was staged on October 9. He told The Myanmar Times that following the pre-dawn raid, over 1000 residents left, and he does not know where they went.
“Most of them are women and maybe they have not returned due to anxiety,” he said.
US-based Human Rights Watch has released satellite footage that shows whole villages have been razed, with a total of 1500 structures burned in “several waves of arson”.
During the Rakhine State Investigation Commission’s trip to Maungdaw, it ordered officials to create an inventory of burned homes and destroyed property, including motorbikes.
According to the administration department, 768 houses have been razed from October 9 to present.
U Phone Naing, an immigration officer based in Koedangout village, told The Myanmar Times that in his village, 90 people were still missing as of December 9.
“Some family members said the missing villagers left to receive healthcare in downtown Maungdaw before the attacks happened, but they have not yet returned,” he said. He added that most of the missing villagers are men.
Maungdaw district administration department head U Ye Htut said the government has already announced that villagers are free to return and resume their normal lives, so long as they are not connected to the attacks. He added that returning stability to the area and rebuilding trust between Muslim and Buddhist communities are priorities.
Pol Brig Gen Thura San Lwin told The Myanmar Times that security forces are still interrogating the majority of the 557 arrested suspects, with only a handful already charged. According to the President’s Office, 42 people have already been prosecuted and 23 people released.
“Most of the prosecuted people were charged under section 17(a) [for connection to illegal organisations]. The maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment. For the rest of the suspects, we will have to seek legal advice before prosecuting,” he said.
Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State remains restricted, with over 130,000 who previously relied on food rations not able to be supplied, according to the UN. At the end of his recent, second trip to Myanmar, former UN secretary-general and current chair of the Rakhine State Advisory Commission Kofi Annan had said that he hoped and expected that media access and full humanitarian assistance to the affected area would resume “soon”.