SITTWE, Myanmar -- In mid-October, Maung Hla Tun, a 45-year-old Buddhist, fled his village in the remote district of Maungdaw, in Myanmar's western Rakhine State, after it became a virtual war zone. Six days earlier, more than 250 people armed with knives, spikes and old guns had launched coordinated attacks against the Border Police Guard in the area, and a joint force of soldiers and police responded by launching a sweeping search for armed militants.
In all likelihood, the attacks were carried out by militants from Rakhine State's mostly stateless Muslim minority, known as the Rohingya. In the aftermath, three districts in the north of the state were declared a "military operations area," and the security forces launched the still ongoing "Operation Backdoor" to hunt down suspected attackers. According to the army, 102 Rohingya militants and 32 members of the security forces have since been killed, and tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. Human rights groups say the death toll is much higher.
The militants so far have not attacked civilians. But Maung Hla Tun, like thousands of other Buddhists who have recently left their villages in Northern Rakhine, did not feel safe. He fled with his family to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine. "There was not fighting in our village," he said. "But in 2012, it was torched by the Bengalis [a common Myanmar term for the Rohingya], and two of our people died there. Now we're afraid that something like this could happen again. It will be impossible to live again with the Bengalis."
The recent attacks have confirmed some of the worst fears of the Buddhist population in Rakhine, where some members of Myanmar's majority Bamar ethnic community have for years depicted the Rohingya as a terrorist menace, although no organized group has engaged in armed violence for two decades. Maung Hla Tun said he did not trust the security forces to protect the Buddhist population, and would be willing to carry weapons himself.
Two weeks after the October attack, the Rakhine State police announced plans for a new, paramilitary-style "regional police" force to be recruited from non-Muslim residents, who would receive training and weapons. "This is extremely dangerous," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an independent group that monitors Rakhine State, using a traditional alternative name for the area. "Expanding police forces in northern Rakhine State with the recruitment of local (non-Muslim) Rakhine, armed and paid for local policing in predominantly Rohingya areas ... will likely exacerbate the communal situation on the ground."
Northern Rakhine state has been virtually sealed since the beginning of "Operation Back Door," which has blocked access for most foreign journalists and independent observers. The Myanmar government, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, has denied claims that multiple atrocities have been committed by the armed forces. However, the United Nations has called for an independent investigation, saying that 30,000 Rohingya have been displaced and citing reports of villages being burned and sweeping arrests and detentions. Reuters news agency has reported that hundreds have crossed to neighboring Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly not in control of the army, which has a powerful position and retains 25% of all parliamentary seats. But her handling of the crisis in the face of human rights violations claims is damaging her international standing, prompting petitions to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991. Some in her administration fear that mounting pressure on her fledgling administration could see some Western governments threaten curbs or to withhold development assistance.
Little is known about the identity of the militants. In a series of videos posted online, they have identified themselves as the Al-Yakin Mujahedeen, and claimed to be fighting for Rohingya rights. The government is stressing possible connections between the militants and foreign jihadist networks, and has claimed that an organization called Aqa Mul Mujahedeen is behind the attacks.
Tin Maung Shwe, a top official with the Rakhine State government, told the Nikkei Asian Review in Sittwe in October that the militants "have connections with RSO and ISIS in Saudi Arabia." RSO (Rohingya Solidarity Organization) is the name for an armed group previously believed to have been extinct for two decades; ISIS is the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.
According to Tin Maung Shwe, the involvement of the groups was established by monitoring remittances sent from the Middle East, together with confessions made by arrested militants. "We have made enquiries and we have much information, and it's not the time to explain definitely," he said.
He denied that government forces have committed human rights violations, saying: "We have signed the Geneva Convention, and we carry out operations according to the law... In some villages, the villagers warmly welcome our troops, and there's no problem. In some villages, the people ran away. In some places some people attack, using knifes and some weapons, the members of the security forces. At that time, the soldiers shoot and then they died."
"This is an operation area," he added. "It means no consideration, no thinking. There's one instruction: if somebody responds, you shoot." Asked about lack of access to the area for international observers, he concluded: "We have to protect our national interests, and these Muslims are not part of them. We don't care about what outsiders think. We must protect our land and our people. Humanitarian concerns are only our second priority."
On the border
The remote northern districts of Rakhine have long been cut off from the rest of the country, but their isolation is also cultural. Up to 90% of the population has been Muslim since World War II, when tensions between the Muslim and Buddhist communities exploded. Most Muslims left the south of the state, while most Buddhists moved out of the north, leaving a minority of local Rakhine.
The Rohingya are not recognized as Myanmar citizens, cannot travel easily and are constantly reminded by officials that they are outcasts in the country. The dusty roads in northern Rakhine State are littered with dozens of police checkpoints where they have to pay exorbitant bribes to secure passage. Human rights organizations have documented for years systematic abuse of the Rohingya.
In February, after gaining a rare permit to travel to the region, I heard many such stories. In Myo Thu Gyi, a village 5 km outside Maungdaw, hopelessness and anger were palpable among the Rohingya inhabitants, many of whom claimed to have been abused by the security forces. "We were constantly tortured," said a 23-year-old man who was arrested by police shortly after riots in 2012. "There were two 12-year-old boys there with us, and they suffered torture too. Many people died as a consequence of the torture; I know of at least 30," he said, asking for his name to be kept confidential.
The man said he was eventually sentenced to six years' hard labor for arson. "We were 80 in a cell and we received little food," he said, adding that he was released following a presidential pardon in late 2014. "Now I suffer constant migraines and I can't sleep well. They destroyed me," he said.
To escape from such alleged abuses, and from crippling poverty, many young men and women from the village make dangerous journeys to Malaysia, putting themselves in the hands of ruthless human traffickers. Tens of thousands of Rohingya from Rakhine State have crossed the Andaman Sea in rickety boats since 2012. Many have died during the perilous journey down the coasts of Myanmar and Thailand.
Noor Begun, a widow in her 40s, said her eldest son had left less than a year earlier, "because he couldn't work or do anything here." She had not heard from her son, but had received information indirectly that he had reached Malaysia. "Three months later, a friend told me that a relative had seen my son in a detention center in Malaysia," she said. "My son told him that he had been in detention for three months. I felt relieved he was alive, but I couldn't hear his voice and I haven't received information about him for nine months," she said, her eyes filled with tears.
The son is likely to have been detained during a crackdown on people smuggling networks launched by the Malaysian and Thai governments in May 2015. Since then virtually no boats carrying human cargo have left the coast of Rakhine State. Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst, noted in a recent Nikkei Asian Review article that the closure of "the escape valve of illegal migration" could be one of the factors that pushed some Rohingya to launch an armed insurgency.
Maung Hla Tun hailed from what is called a "model village," built by the government to resettle impoverished Bamar people from slums in central Myanmar towns, together with local Rakhine Buddhists, some Rakhine Buddhist immigrants from Bangladesh, and even some criminals given the choice of imprisonment or moving to the region. The government under this scheme provides the villages with houses and plots of land, often after expelling Muslims occupying the sites.
In some "model" villages in Buthidaung district, most people I interviewed said that a mixture of economic motives and patriotic idealism had pushed them to live there. This was the case for Hla Hla Thein and Zaw Lin, a Bamar couple from Yangon in their late 40s, who have been living since 2010 in Chao Zudaing model village.
"Not many people want to come and live here, because most of the people are Bengalis, but that's why we came," said Hla Hla Thein, a member of the NLD since 1988. "We are like a wall protecting our land from the Bengali invasion," she said in a small shop owned by the couple in the village, where we were surrounded by their Buddhist Rakhine neighbors.
Later, when we were alone, the Bamar couple had more to say. "Relations between Bamar and Rakhine here are not good," said Zaw Lin. "They don't want us here. Most people in this village were Bamar at the beginning, but they left because the local (Buddhist) Rakhine community put pressure on them. We resisted here because we want to protect our land," he said. "We have come here to protect our country from the Bengali invaders, and these Rakhine don't even say thanks," his wife added.
The couple's complaints point to an often-neglected dimension of the Rakhine conflict: The tensions are not two-sided, they have three aspects, even though violence between Bamar and Rakhine Buddhists is extremely rare.
For most of their history, the Rakhine people lived in an independent kingdom, separate from the Bamar homeland in central Myanmar, and some Rakhine nationalists today display as much resentment toward the Myanmar government, dominated by the majority Bamar, as to the Rohingya.
Nevertheless, nothing seems to unite the two Buddhist groups as strongly as the perceived common threat embodied by the state's Muslim population. Now, with the growing belief that a Rohingya insurgency is underway, this threat looks to them more plausible than ever.