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By Anagha Neelakantan (@anaghaneel)
Since 2012, Myanmar has seen outbreaks of inter-communal and anti-Muslim violence, first in Rakhine State, where there is a large population of Rohingya Muslims as well as other Muslim communities such as the Kaman. The violence then spread to other parts of the country. (See our reports Storm Clouds on the Horizon and The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, our June 2012 conflict alert, and our most recent blog posts here, here and here.) Reports are now emerging of deadly attacks on Muslim villagers in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw township, an area near the Bangladesh border where the great majority of the population is Rohingya. Crisis Group has spoken to a number of individuals and organisations who have visited the area and interviewed people who said they witnessed the events. These accounts paint an alarming and consistent picture. Around 49 people are believed to have been killed in two violent incidents between 9 and 13 January. The allegations suggest that some of these killings were carried out by the police, and that the victims included women and children.
The first incident took place on 9 January, when the chief of a Rakhine Buddhist village allegedly intercepted and detained a group of eight Rohingya men from farther south in Rakhine State who were attempting to reach the Bangladesh border. In circumstances that are unclear, it appears that villagers killed these men and buried the bodies in a makeshift grave.
On 13 January, Rohingya from the nearby Du Chee Yar Tan village stumbled across the grave and photographed the bodies with smartphones. A police operation was then launched in what might have been an attempt to prevent information about the killing, particularly photographic evidence, getting out. It appears that in the course of that operation, a police sergeant was captured and killed by Rohingya villagers. This sparked a search for the officer, and when his bloody clothes were discovered a massive manhunt for his killers began. Local Buddhists also appear to have mounted a revenge attack on the Muslim villagers, with the complicity or even active involvement of some police. It is alleged that around 40 people were killed as a result.
The manhunt and search for the police officer’s body continue. As a result of the violence, all villagers have reportedly fled Du Chee Yar Tan, which has been sealed off by the authorities. An order has apparently been issued by the district chief to arrest all male residents from Du Chee Yar Tan over the age of ten. Nearby villages have been warned not to harbour anyone from the village.
The government has repeatedly denied that any killings have taken place, other than that of the police officer.
It is vital that the central government take clear and decisive action. The central government should immediately launch an impartial and transparent investigation into all alleged killings and take action with regard to any crimes committed.
The sealing off of the village and the reported order to arrest all male villagers constitute collective punishment and an intimidation that is not justified in the context of a police investigation.
Given allegations that local police (who are all Rakhine Buddhists) were involved in the killings – and taking into account previous allegations of this kind during earlier violence – the local officers should be withdrawn. The investigation and provision of security should be by police from outside Rakhine State, with the support of the army if necessary.
Finally, villagers must be allowed to swiftly return to the village and resume their livelihoods – and not confined to the village “for their own safety”, as has happened in other incidents.
Failure to adequately address these allegations carries strong risks. The central government may be seen as complicit in the cover-up of serious crimes, and extremists would be emboldened by the sense that anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State will go unpunished. This could have potentially grave consequences in the region, which is still reeling from earlier episodes of deadly violence.
A critical challenge facing Myanmar as the country opens up (emphasised in our Dark Side of Transition report) is to reform the police service and, at a time of rising intolerance and bigotry, make it more inclusive of Myanmar’s diversity. A clear statement of intent from the centre to address these latest serious allegations in Rakhine State is thus not simply a question of asserting the rule of law. It is necessary to demonstrate that the nation is prepared to protect its minority communities and embrace its diversity.