Regular readers of Myanmar’s state mouthpiece The Global New Light of Myanmar will have noticed a pronounced trend over recent months: someone appears to be killing off village administrators in Muslim-majority northern Rakhine State.
Patterns have emerged in the sparse reports. Rohingya Muslim village administrators have reportedly been murdered or gone missing on a near-daily basis. The cause of death was often noted as stabbing. In recent weeks, assailants have been reported to wear black masks.
Police, government and Ministry of Information officials indicate at least 33 Rohingya civilians have been murdered in the last seven months, several of whom occupied village-level administrative positions, or were believed to be government informants. Rohingya sources who spoke to Asia Times indicate the figure could be much higher.
While the number of deaths pales in comparison to the body count racked up during the military’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign launched in the wake of the insurgent attacks launched last October 9, the killings suggest northern Rakhine State’s conflict has entered a dangerous new phase.
Sources in the region paint a picture of a civilian population caught between an oppressive state with a corrupt, under-resourced and occasionally barbaric security apparatus, and an increasingly influential Rohingya insurgency with a low tolerance for opposition.
The October 9 coordinated attacks were reportedly launched by several hundred Rohingya insurgents armed with sticks and machetes on border guard posts near Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh.
Nine police officers were hacked to death in the melee. The insurgent group, at the time calling themselves Harakah Al Yakeen and now known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, seized a cache of weapons and some 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The group is reputedly led by Ata Ullah, who has appeared in a series of public announcement videos shown in media reports and available on video-sharing site YouTube.
The area was soon thereafter declared a military operational zone, signaling the beginning of a brutal crackdown. Reinforcements were dispatched and in the subsequent days and weeks sporadic clashes ensued as security forces went from village to village rounding up any men suspected of harboring militant leanings.
A satellite analysis released by Human Rights Watch pointed to a retributive pattern to the village burnings.
Allegations of grave human rights abuses – extrajudicial killings, torture, rape – at the hands of security forces began to mount. The campaign bore the hallmarks of the military’s notorious ‘four cuts’ strategy, cutting the targeted group off from sources of food, funds, information and recruitment.
Over 70,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh – an exodus of almost 10% of the state’s total Rohingya population.
What the military dubbed ‘clearance operations’ has been branded “crimes against humanity” by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar. The number of Rohingya killed in the clearance operations is estimated to be in the hundreds.
The informant killings began well before October 9. In a report issued by International Crisis Group in December, it was suggested that the strike on the border posts had been rushed – the result of leaked intelligence that threatened to compromise the insurgency’s operation.
Two Rohingya government informants responsible for a round of arrests in early September were reportedly released after a sizeable bribe changed hands, the ICG report said. It is believed the pair were killed shortly after their release by the new Rohingya militant group.
In the wake of the October attacks, the north was placed under a lockdown that amounted to a near-total humanitarian blockade. Media access was minimal, with the Ministry of Information organizing two press tours that took place under the watchful eye of security forces.
In December, a group of local journalists handpicked by the Ministry of Information and the State Counsellor’s office were permitted to interview villagers in Maungdaw and Buthidaung, largely producing reports that cleared security forces of any wrongdoing.
One Rohingya man told the press of militant training in a nearby area, and denied claims that rapes had taken place. The following day, his headless body was found.
A blurred-out photograph of his corpse with the words “TRUTH-TELLER BEHEADED” superimposed on it was posted by the official Facebook page for the office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
That murder was the second authorities had attributed to the insurgency, pointing to the slain man’s cooperation with the government as a motive.
In late May, a Twitter account purporting to represent the armed group issued a statement emphasizing the group’s legitimacy and right to self-defense. It said that ARSA does not target civilians, and denied any links to international terrorist organizations.
The statement also pointed to an alleged conspiracy, from State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office down, to fabricate evidence against the group and tarnish ARSA’s “noble image.” However, it has not been possible to verify if the statement was issued by anyone affiliated with ARSA, much less its shadowy leader, Atta Ullah.
A source from Maungdaw police told Asia Times that such killings are happening “all the time”, expressing a commonly-held belief that ARSA is consolidating its networks and systematically rooting out opposition. It is a possibility a handful of Rohingya ground sources are willing to concede, but only with the guarantee of total anonymity.
ARSA is understood to operate with a level of legitimacy enshrined in fatwas conferred by clerics. Targeting of security forces is seen, in this instance, as just. It is unclear whether there has been any specific directive issued on village administrators, informants, or those with ties to the government and army.
Whoever is responsible for the spate of killings, one thing is certain: the government’s already poor intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Muslim majority northwest will have taken a serious blow.
Abuses, discrimination and extortion
The Tatmadaw’s stated core aims of non-disintegration of the union and perpetuation of national sovereignty highlight the importance assigned to ensuring territorial integrity. The frontier with Bangladesh, often referred to as the west gate, is widely seen as cause for concern.
A vague suspicion that Bangladeshis have been sneaking across the border, settling in northern Rakhine and calling themselves Rohingya occupies a special place in the collective imagination.
Police sources voice a concern that ARSA’s eventual aim might be the annexation of Maungdaw District (which comprises both Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships), and the formation of a Mayu Region – a concept that harks back to the very first iteration of Rohingya insurgency.
No official ARSA statements to date appear to endorse such a message, however.
Prior to October 9, there had been sporadic clashes between Rohingya villagers and security forces in the north.
An official document reviewed by Asia Times detailing conflict between Muslim villagers and security forces in northern Rakhine State between 2001 and 2014 outlined five instances in which security forces were allegedly killed, and two where serious injuries were inflicted.
Reports of abuses, discrimination and extortion of Rohingya civilians emerge from Rakhine State on a near-daily basis, and are self-published by blogs run by an activist diaspora. In recent years, these media outlets have become better-funded and have been able to extend their information-gathering networks and distribute mobile phones inside the state.
This, along with improved cellphone coverage on domestic networks, has meant there is more information available from the remote region than ever before. However, as one on-the-ground source put it, “it’s hard to know who’s who any more.”
Government sources say Maungdaw District, comprising Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, has a population of over half a million. Buthidaung Township is around 80% Muslim, and in Maungdaw the percentage is believed to be higher than 90%.
While Buddhists and Muslims live side by side in northern Rakhine, the Buddhist population see themselves as being badly outnumbered and live in fear of violence turning communal.
Successive governments have concocted demographic engineering plans to bolster Buddhist numbers in the area, with varying degrees of success. For many who grew up in the north, moving elsewhere permanently is not seen as an option. There were deaths on both sides in violence that swept the state in 2012.
In the immediate aftermath of October 9, thousands of Buddhists fled from the north and calls for the formation, training and arming of Rakhine civilian militias were given consideration. The police allowed a special intake of recruits who would ordinarily be too short, too uneducated or too old for service.
The proposed creation of civilian paramilitaries gave rise to concerns that targeting of security forces could see any violence in the north take a turn toward being regarded as communal.
No democratic help
ARSA has thus not risen in a vacuum. The majority of Rohingya feel the elected National League for Democracy-led government has done little to rectify their situation.
Hundreds of thousands remain disenfranchised, stateless, unable to access healthcare and livelihoods, and subject to severe restrictions on their movements. Upward of 100,000 remain interned in squalid camps.
While the military’s full-scale counterinsurgency operations have ceased, for now, and the north of Rakhine State has been returned to relative stability, ongoing reports of ARSA activity and the mounting informant death toll remain a cause for concern – regardless of who it transpires is responsible.
For Rohingya civilians, life in Rakhine State was already precarious – and that was before they had to worry that any future strikes by ARSA could see them either bear the brunt of collective state administered punishment, or be forced into self-defense as de facto members of an insurgency of which they may or may not be sympathetic.