Myanmar army must refrain from committing crime against humanity
17th October 2016, London, United Kingdom
The Burma Human Rights Network is closely monitoring the recent events in Northern Rakhine State with great concern following reports of extra-judicial assassinations, arson, indiscriminate killings and mass arrests by Myanmar’s security forces following an attack on three police posts on the Myanmar-Bangladesh Border by unknown assailants.
“The Rohingya population in Rakhine State is already living under severe persecution and facing all sorts of human misery, such as facing food ration cuts and restrictions on movement which in this current offensive by the Burmese military makes it so they are unable to flee by boat. There is no justification for violence and insurgency but it is vital that the Burmese government stops these apartheid policies towards the Rohingya population in Burma in order to ensure peace and coexistence. There is an obvious risk that indiscriminate targeting of civilians can easily further escalate the situation rather than restore calm,” said Kyaw Win of BHRN.
On the 9th of October 2016 a group of unidentified armed men stormed three police posts on the Myanmar- Bangladesh border, near the city of Maungdaw, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In theattack nine police were killed and the assailants looted the posts of guns and ammunition. Initial reports suggest the attackers were ethnicRohingya, and used overwhelming numbers to completely overrun the posts. The Burmese Military (Tatmadaw) responded by sending reinforcements to the area. A severe crackdown appears to have followed, drawing large concern for local civilians as witnesses describe indiscriminate killings and sweeping arrests by security forces.
The exact details of the attack on the border posts remain vague and accounts are conflicting. The identity of the attackers are still uncertain, but many in the government and media initially speculated that the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a defunct Rohingya militia that was active in the 1980’s and 90’s before they were disarmed by the Bangladeshi Government, was responsible for the attack. Thisspeculation was furthered by the emergence of at least five videos showing several young men speaking Rohingya language and armed with military style rifles and pistols calling for other Muslims and Rohingyas to join them fighting for their freedom. The group identifies themselves in Arabic language in one video as al Yakeen (The Faith). The group did not claim any affiliation to any other militant or political organization. The unverified videos were quickly shared in Burma, including by the former Information Minister, Ye Htut. As a result rumours and speculation have increased significantly, worsening already high tensions.
The President’s office has also released an official statement detailing information obtained through interrogation of apprehended suspects, as well as apparent intelligence sources. The Statement describes a well organized armed group called Aqa Mul Mujahadeen, whom they say were funded by middle eastern sources and connected to proscribed terrorist groups. The President’s account states that the leader of the group was trained by the Pakistani Taliban, and ran training camps for the Rohingya involved in the attack. The name Aqaamul Mujahideen means literally “The Ones Standing as Mujahiddeen” and can be taken as a generic name for any Muslims involved in combat. If the group in the videos is in fact behind the attacks it should be noted that they have not used this name to describe themselves, which should draw question about the statements from the President’s office. If the men in the video are assumed to be responsible it should also be noted that they depict only a few dozen adult men with assault rifles and that the vast majority seen in the videos are children armed with swords, sticks and farming tools. This again draws questions into any accounts describing the group as well organized, well funded or well trained.
The BHRN is very concerned about the possible use of child soldiers in the attacks against the Border Guard Police and condemns the practice vehemently. The spreading of questionable and unsupported stories regarding the RSO and other militant groups is not new to Myanmar. Major Zaw Htay, of the former President’s office, published similar rumors in 2012 from his Facebook account stating that “Bengalis” from Bangladesh were invading Myanmar. His comments triggered and worsened anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar at that time as well.
Following the government statements, ultra-nationalist and extremist Buddhist groups have been monitored spreading hysteria from social media. In one worrying case a monk named Ashin Vicara posted news of Authorities in Irrawaddy discovering Muslims with weapons and warned “Burmese people” to take extra care. The story he posted, however, was from the Burmese 7Day Journal and was in regards to a man believed to be connected to the armed conflict in Karen State who was found by police with drugs and a sniper rifle in his possession. Ashin Vicara’s post was shared over 6,000 times and received nearly 3,000 “likes”. In a time of incredible tension, disinformation must be avoided, as it has led to increases in violence in the past. The BHRN is concerned that many statements from government officials released without verification will fuel rumors and that the targeting of Muslims by vigilante groups may increase as has occurred previously. In the days following the attacks security forces officially claimed to have killed several militants, but witnesses have said the operations to catch the attackers have been indiscriminate in many cases. Some witnesses described non-combatants being shot at close range execution style. Accounts of shallow graves being discovered have also emerged with unverified photos. These accounts also depict victims apparently killed with injuries resulting from close range shootings, in some cases directly in the head and face.
Security forces were also met with resistance in some instances. On Tuesday, 11th October, it was reported that four Myanmar soldiers were killed while fighting armed men in Maungdaw. It is feared that some of the militants may be hiding among the civilian population, which can only lead to higher casualties of noncombatants. As security sweeps continue, villages have lost several homes to apparent arson attacks. Statements from security forces place the blame on Rohingya militants, but several witnesses dispute this and implicate security forces. There are several accounts of families now having to flee after their homes were burnt down. Some of these families have said their homes and businesses were looted as well. One witness described homes burnt intentionally by security forces while civilians, including children and elderly, were still inside. These events have the potential to dramatically increase the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine State, where over 100,000 IDPs already live and Humanitarian Agencies are struggling to support them.
BHRN is also concerned by investors and officials who may take advantage of the conflict and displacement to further interests in the township at the expense of residents who are already suffering and vulnerable. Maungdaw has been the site of controversial efforts by Chinese investors to explore and mine sand deposits rich in titanium and aluminium and is of significant importance to the Myanmar Government and foreign powers. The Wunlatt Foundation, a local civil society group, said it was concerned about the efforts’ impacts on the 30 Buddhist and Muslim villages located on the coast near proposed mining sites. Criticism of the development in townships where many were displaced during the 2012 riots have been deflected by Rakhine State authorities who argued that the projects will be good for the local economy. The Chinese backed Shwe Shapweye Company is leading the projects. The Government has dismissed previous calls for transparency on this matter.
The BHRN is calling on the Myanmar Army and Police to ensure the safety and protection of civilians and avoid extra-judicial executions. Security forces must also refrain from any form of collective punishment against Rohingya residents of Maungdaw. We call on security forces to respect the principles of proportionality and distinction with regard to the use of force in counter-insurgency operations in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. In restoring law and order, International Law and human rights must be kept as a priority to ensure that this restoration is meaningful, just and avoids worsening tensions in an already fragmented and volatile region.
Notes for Editors
Violence in Rakhine State:
In June and October of 2012 several anti-Muslim riots broke out in the state, initially triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist Rakhine woman named Ma Thida Htwe. She was believed to have been raped and killed by a group of Rohingya Muslims. Ten Muslims were killed shortly after when a bus they were on was attacked by a mob, who mistook them for the accused murderers. The attack sparked a mass movement and protest by Rohingya Muslims in the northern part of the state in the townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung where Muslims are the majority of the population. During the unrest security forces accused Muslims of burning down their own villages as well as attacking ethnic Rakhine. Anti-Muslim riots spread through the state afterwards. Muslim areas within many towns were razed to the ground in arson attacks. After the riots there were estimated to be over 140,000 people displaced from their homes. The vast majority of them were Muslims. Official numbers put the total number of deaths slightly below 100 people, but these numbers have been disputed by some as being low.
Rohingya in Rakhine State:
The Rohingya have been largely excluded as an accepted ethnic group in Myanmar. They were formally rejected by law in 1982 when citizenship laws were drafted specifically targeting the minority as not indigenous and disqualified from citizenship and its benefits. They are viewed as different both ethnically and religiously and as a result are typically referred to as “Bengali” by most Burmese people and media. The Rohingya have faced severe limitations on even the most basic rights and freedoms; including movement, marriage, education, property ownership and the number of children they can have. The
Rohingya have limited avenues for legal grievances and are extremely vulnerable as a result. The Rohingya have fled the country in large numbers periodically, most notably to Bangladesh where nearly 200,000 are estimated to be living in registered and unregistered camps as refugees.
Background on the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN)
Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Burma. BHRN has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom withpoliticians and world leaders.
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