Less than two years after an alleged genocide that caused 700,000 Rohingya people to flee, Myanmar’s army has launched a new campaign of violence in Rakhine State — but this time the conflict is affecting all communities and all faiths, human rights groups have said.
- 30,000 people have been displaced by the conflict since January
- Almost all humanitarian aid has been blocked from the conflict region
- Homes have also been looted and burned, and a rights group has warned of a coming food crisis
The latest upsurge in violence began on January 4 — according to a report released today by Amnesty International (AI) — when the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group, launched coordinated attacks that left 13 police officers dead.
Days after, a government spokesperson announced that the military had been instructed to “crush” the AA.
Almost all humanitarian aid, human rights groups and journalists have since been denied access to much of the state.
But AI have received consistent reports and visual evidence of clashes, arrests, torture, indiscriminate attacks, looting and destruction of property including historical sites, according to the report titled ‘No-one can protect us’.
“It’s the Myanmar military doing what the Myanmar military has always done, which is unleashing a campaign of violence against ethnic minorities,” said AI researcher Laura Haigh.
“And of course it’s civilians who are bearing the brunt.”
‘A different kind of conflict’
Rakhine State came to the world’s attention in 2016 and 2017 when the villages of Muslim Rohingya families were attacked and burned and hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring Bangladesh causing a humanitarian crisis.
Yesterday, #RedCross teams evacuated five civilians severely injured during recent fighting in northern areas of #Rakhine. We are very concerned about the increasing impact of conflict on all communities. @ICRC @MyanmarRedCross @IFRCAsiaPacific
Ms Haigh said the latest violence was “a different kind of conflict” where the military was facing a “much more organised, skilled and armed group”, and civilians including Muslims, Buddhists and Christians were getting caught in the middle.
The AA, which has an estimated 7,000 troops, has also been accused of human rights violations including abductions and threats, but on a much smaller scale.
Local villages have not only been caught in the middle of clashes, but have also been targeted by indiscriminate attacks.
“I heard an explosion. It was very loud and there was a big fireball that fell around us,” Hla Shwe Maung, a 37-year-old ethnic Rakhine, told AI regarding a military attack on his home in March.
“I grabbed my daughter in my arms … [when] we looked back half of our house’s roof was gone.”
Homes have also been looted and burned, according to the report which cited interviews, photographs, videos and satellite imagery.
Ms Haigh said the current abuses in Rakhine mirrored what was happening in other parts of Myanmar where counter-insurgency tactics included torture, arbitrary detention, executions, and forced labour, such as transporting soldiers and ammunition and forced guard duty at military posts.
“It means we cannot work that day, which makes it hard for us to earn a living,” said a 27-year-old civilian from Buthidaung township, who had been forced to perform sentry duty without pay.
‘Systematic’ military impunity
Ms Haigh said the problems throughout Myanmar were “linked by the same common thread of a Myanmar military that is allowed to continue committing abuses against civilians because it is not being held to account”.
Military units involved in human rights abuses in the past are still operating and still committing abuses in Rakhine, while new units are also committing atrocities, she said.
“It shows this is not a case of a few bad apples. This is a systemic institutionalised problem with the capital,” she said.
Ms Haigh urged the international community to move beyond investigations and “move forward to prosecutions”.
“This impunity is just allowing abuses to perpetuate.”
Long-term humanitarian crisis
Myanmar has restricted all access to Rakhine State aside from the Red Cross and the World Food Programme.
“That’s clearly not enough when you have more than 30,000 people displaced this year alone in addition to over 100,000 who have been displaced from previous waves of violence,” Ms Haigh said.
Farmland has also been destroyed and farmers have been blocked from their harvests.
Rights groups are warning of a “looming food insecurity crisis” if farmers are unable to plant crops in time for next season.
“If we miss a year, it will affect the next year too,” explained one Mro farmer.
“We will face the consequences of this for at least two years.”
Civilians hurt in the fighting have also been blocked from accessing medical care, including one seven-year-old boy injured by mortar fire, who died in hospital after soldiers refused for several hours to give the boy’s family permission to take him there.
“I don’t think this crisis is getting the kind of attention it needs,” Ms Haigh said.
“[Civilians] are living in fear … they are in a situation where they don’t know what to do and where to go.”