Journalists say militants are killing villagers who support government
In the middle of the night on 4 July, more than a dozen masked men, dressed head-to-toe in black, surrounded Abdu Sulwon’s home in northern Rakhine State. His widow says that was the last time she saw him alive.
“I saw a trail of blood where they dragged him away,” said Haleda, 40, showing bruises on her body where she says the men beat her with sticks. Her husband’s body was found in a ravine near their village, Maung Hna Ma, a week ago.
She gave her account to reporters during a government-organised trip for local and foreign journalists to northern Rakhine State.
Officials say Muslim insurgents are behind this and a slew of killings in the area that has been racked by violence in recent months, with security forces accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
“It is clear that Muslim militants are taking out Muslim villagers who are perceived to be collaborating with the government,” U Thaung Tun, National Security Adviser of Myanmar, told diplomats in Yangon.
At least 44 civilians have been killed and 27 have been kidnapped or gone missing in northern Rakhine in the past nine months, U Thaung Tun said.
It was not possible to independently verify those figures or establish who was behind any of the killings described to journalists. Insurgents have denied targeting civilians.
But in two cases, including that of Abdu Sulwon, relatives of the victims broadly supported the official version of events.
Journalists who have reported from Rakhine State confirmed that many Muslim villagers have been killed by Muslim militants.
“Villagers who have relations with the authorities are mainly targeted by the insurgents, so far about 17 have been killed”, said Myint Maung Soe, a reporter from Myanma Alin Daily, who also took part in the recent trip to troubled areas along with local and foreign journalists.
If militants were to blame for at least some of the killings, it would add to evidence the insurgency that flared in October has not been fully rooted out, despite the government announcing the end of its security operation in February.
A group known as Harakah al-Yaqin attacked Myanmar border guard posts on 9 Oct., killing nine policemen and prompting months of security clearance operations by the Tatmadaw.
About 75,000 Muslim villagers fled to Bangladesh during the ensuing military crackdown, which was beset by allegations of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings by security forces.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has denied most of the allegations and is refusing access to a United Nations panel of experts, saying its mission will aggravate the situation on the ground in Rakhine.
Muslim villagers and Myanmar security sources described to Reuters earlier this year how Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), or Faith Movement, began as a small group of leaders who recruited hundreds of young men in the run-up to the October attacks.
HaY says it is fighting for the rights of 1.1 million members of the Muslim community in Rakhine who are denied citizenship and face restrictions on their movement in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Militants have rarely confronted security forces in recent months, but troops checking a report of a militant hideout in Tin May village on 9 July clashed with armed men, killing two and arresting two.
Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s at IHS-Markit, said the militants appeared to be regrouping.
“The pattern of events we’ve seen this year appears to reflect a strategy of going back to grassroots and working politically in villages,” said Davis.
“It appears they are attempting to eliminate potential intelligence liabilities and to a degree intimidate waverers among the population.”
Brigadier General Thura San Lwin, Border Guard Police commander, said information garnered from interrogations and the discovery of militant training camps indicated that at least some of the recent killings were committed by insurgents.
Other killings could be down to local disputes, he said.
Mohammad Tason, 28, was found dead with knife wounds across his neck and torso in Yinma Kyaung Taung village.
“My husband was on friendly terms with the military; I think that’s why they killed him,” said his wife Hawdiza, 23.
Like Haleda, Hawdiza was brought to meet reporters earlier this month by administrators in Buthidaung township during a media visit conducted under the close watch of Border Guard Police. Following Abdu Sulwon’s killing, security forces raided Maung Hna Ma village, arresting several men and sending others into hiding, according to accounts given by women there who beckoned reporters from a riverbank to tell of their missing husbands and sons.
“My son has nothing to do with terrorism,” said Marmuda Hatu, 48, whose son Saad Ullah, 24, was arrested. “They don’t have any evidence.”
Chris Lewa from the monitoring group Arakan Project said the region was seeing “vicious cycles of violence” with security forces launching night-time raids in response to killings.
Police Major Tun Hlaing said around 20 people had been arrested in Maung Hna Ma this week in the investigation into Abdu Sulwon’s killing. Most had been released, he said, but four suspected of working with the insurgents were being questioned.
Reporters said the threat of being recruited, intimidated or killed by Muslim militants continues to this day.
“Insurgents are still active”, said Myint Maung Soe, the reporter from Myanma Alin Daily. “Villagers from both (Muslim and Buddhist) communities are worried that they will be attacked by insurgents”.
Reuters and GNLM