Nothing gained for Muslims in Rakhine

The Muslim community in Rakhine can regain the human rights to which they are entitled if they are prepared to renounce violence and support the National League for Democracy government.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

IT IS just over three months since Muslim militants launched coordinated raids on Border Guard Police positions in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township, leaving nine officers dead.

As has been extensively reported, the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar Police Force responded to the October 9 attacks by launching an operation to hunt for the militants and recover arms and ammunition they seized. The operation in Maungdaw Township has included a curfew, restrictions on movement and the suspension of border trade and fishing, which left residents of the Muslim-majority region unable to work and support their families.

This week I would like to discuss what the militants have achieved by resorting to violence to challenge the government and the consequences for the township’s residents.

During the “clearance operation” launched by the security forces after the attacks, some houses were torched. Some Muslim villagers and Rohingya activists abroad blamed the security forces for setting fire to people’s homes.

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This was denied by the Tatmadaw, which claimed that villagers had deliberately set fire to their own houses to damage the reputation of the security forces. The Tatmadaw has, however, acknowledged that the firing of bullets by its troops may have started fires in some villages.

Whatever the reason, houses have been destroyed. The Rakhine State government has told villagers they cannot rebuild their houses because land that is not occupied belongs to the state. Only the state government has the authority to manage land regarded as being “empty”, it said. As a result, the villagers who lost their homes have still not been allowed to rebuild.

The curfew imposed on Maungdaw Township after the attacks has affected the movement of Muslim villagers, which was already seriously restricted. Previously they could only travel to another township if they had the necessary prior permission from the Immigration Department.

Since the dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed, villagers who still have homes dare not leave them to travel to other villages even during the day. Men fear that if they leave their villages they may be detained by the security forces.

When the Rakhine Investigation Commission headed by Vice President U Myint Swe visited Maungdaw Township recently, Muslim community leaders asked if villagers could move about freely to be able to resume their livelihoods. The vice president instructed the local authorities to allow villagers to move about during the day.

The October 9 attacks also prompted the government to halt border trade with Bangladesh through Maungdaw. This meant that traders who have no connection with the militants were unable to conduct their business. Border trade has since resumed, but in the case of Muslims it is restricted to those holding national verification cards.

Known as “green cards”, these have been distributed in recent years to those who have applied for citizenship through the highly controversial national verification process.

This NVC requirement has created difficulties for other Muslim traders and businesspeople. There are nearly one million Muslims living in Rakhine, but only about 6,000 have been issued with NVCs.

A decision to suspend offshore fishing in the aftermath of October 9 has also affected many of the state’s residents, including Muslims. All the villages along the coast between the state capital, Sittwe, and the border with Bangladesh are supported by fishing. In Maungdaw’s Ahlethankyaw village, inhabited by people of different religions and ethnic groups, there are more than 100 fishing boats.

The decision to suspend offshore fishing was ordered by the Myanmar Navy, which has been patrolling the maritime boundary with Bangladesh around the clock since October 9. Officials with the Rakhine State government said fishing boats were not properly registered and some were being used for human trafficking or drug smuggling.

The systematic registration of fishermen and fishing boats has begun. When it is completed the fishermen will be permitted to resume making a living. For example, officials went to Maungdaw’s Maung-ni village on January 11 to register fishermen and their boats. Similar exercises will take place in other villages, but many fishing boats remain docked and their owners and crews are out of work.

In summary, the Muslim population of Maungdaw Township has gained nothing from the violence of the militants, except more oppression and difficulty in their lives.

If the Muslims in Rakhine wish to regain the human rights and other rights to which they are entitled, they should renounce violence and cooperate with the National League for Democracy government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is trying to resolve all the problems her administration inherited from a succession of military governments.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Frontier.

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