Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It has been 10 days since Muslim terrorists launched attacks in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw District. According to government figures as well as information we’ve collected, about 500 people were killed in 10 days. Our reporter Ko Moe Myint recently went to Maungdaw to interview the people there and also witnessed attacks and damage. We’ll discuss who he interviewed, what he saw and the situation on the ground. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.
KZM: According to a government release, around 400 ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] members were killed. The worst thing is reports that more than 80 Hindus—[Moe Myint] also interviewed some Hindu community members—were allegedly killed. You went to Maungdaw where attacks were taking place and houses were burned down. Would you recount what you saw?
Moe Myint: As soon as we got into Buthidaung, we could feel the severity of the conflict in Maungdaw. We saw clouds of smoke billowing into the sky. As soon as we arrived at Buthidaung Jetty, we heard the bad news that four Arakanese people were killed near Zula village in Maungdaw’s three-mile camp. There is a village called Myo Thugyi which is just a five-minute walk out of Maungdaw. It is a big Muslim village. There are around 1,200 houses there. All the houses were torched and none of them remained intact.
I went to Maungdaw after attacks in Oct. 9, 2016. At that time, the situation was different. Myo Thugyi village was lively with bazaars and students. But now, all of the houses have been reduced to ash. The whole village is gone. This was the first sign of the immensity of the conflict on the ground. I went to [relief] camps and interviewed Hindus. After the conflict broke out on Aug. 25, Muslim crowds threatened them [they said]. Hindus live together with Muslims in No. 4 and No. 5 wards [of Maungdaw]. All those wards have been torched. Witnesses said arson attacks were carried out by religious extremists. I also witnessed [their feelings].
KZM: You mean Hindu witnesses?
KZM: You have also reported about this. Were [Hindus] killed by Muslim militants?
MM: Muslims made threats. Some shot with a gun and one [Hindu] was killed. I also interviewed the mother of a victim.
She could identify from where the gun was fired. But things are different from what we usually see in movies—not every one of them is shooting with a gun. Some have improvised firearms, some have guns and some have swords. They are a large crowd and it is easier for them to threaten and attack small groups of people. Hindus are the minority there and they dare not talk back to them. What they can do is to avoid conflict. So, they flee. But the town is too small, only four or five wards. So, they flee to Arakanese wards. They escaped, but unluckily some were killed on the way.
KZM: According to witnesses, how many Hindus were killed?
MM: I met the survivors of a family whose members included children [and said] about four or five [members of the family] were killed. She was a Hindu woman called ‘Kamala’ who was receiving treatment at Buthidaung Township Hospital. Her 12-member family came back from southern Maungdaw on Aug. 26 and 27 after conflict broke out. And they took a rest at three-mile camp where police were providing security. They followed a police convoy to go to Ward No. 4 [in Maungdaw]. But by that time, that ward had already been reduced to ashes. The security convoy encountered hundreds of Muslim militants in Myo Thugyi village on their way to Maungdaw. It was followed by an exchange of fire, and the Hindu family fled in fright to the district court, which was under construction. The security convoy didn’t care about the people who were travelling behind them. Perhaps they wanted to avoid conflict with large crowds or perhaps they hadn’t noticed the people travelling behind them. They left. The [Hindu] family was too frightened and so they fled into a nearby building. Some of the people in the crowd had guns and they shot [at them]. Kamala was hit. She was shot in the chest and lost consciousness. The rest were killed with swords. Witnesses told us that [attackers] said words related to religion like ‘Allah is taking you. So you must go.’ [Attackers] left her because they thought she was dead. We can say her account is very credible.
KZM: Did you interview any Muslims living in Maungdaw or Sittwe? What did they say?
MM: I met about six Muslims. Most of them were educated and businesspeople. Anyway, it is fair to say they were educated. They said they condemned such violence. Violence disrupts regional stability and order. They are in hardship now. There were attacks on 30 locations in Maungdaw District, and that also impacts urban areas. Grassroots poor Muslim families who have to rely on rivers and creeks for their daily livelihoods and who know nothing about politics also suffered from the impact of that conflict. They could not go to the market. There is no food and they have to share food with each other. There are two separate things here: ARSA claimed that it fights for its political goal, but its actions have shifted to terrorism. Their acts cannot move the situation for everyday people in a positive direction. At least, they should have displayed tolerance. Kofi Annan’s [Rakhine State Advisory] Commission formed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also provided recommendations. But [ARSA] didn’t wait for the implementation of those recommendations, and instead it launched attacks.
MM: We discussed this in last week’s Dateline. Attacks were launched on Aug. 25, the same day Kofi Annan submitted his recommendations to the government, the president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The government said it would implement those recommendations. Then, immediately, attacks followed. It is fair to say attacks were launched even before that. [ARSA’s] response is that they didn’t accept Kofi Annan’s recommendations and their implementation by the government. They responded in a violent way.
MM: I think they are undermining the positive move made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to solve the problem. Viewing ARSA’s recent official video clips on YouTube, its ultimate political goal is to build an Islamic State [for the Rohingya]. To put it bluntly, it is no longer about human rights. It is about self-interest, which is contrary to human rights. Reconciliation, I think, would be difficult in Maungdaw if they work to that end.
KZM: You mean it will be hard to reconcile between the two communities?
MM: Not just two sides, it is three parties now. One more party has been involved—the Hindu community. I’ve asked Hindus, and all of them unanimously said they dare not live together with [Muslims]. They will not go back to stay within Muslim quarters anymore and also refuse to accept government suggestions that they live together with Muslims. They asked the government for segregation.
KZM: What about other sub-ethnic groups such as the Mro [an Arakanese sub-group]? Did you interview them and what did they say?
MM: Mro people also dare not live [alongside Muslims]. They know nothing about politics. They don’t know who the Rohingya are. To put it bluntly, they don’t even know who the president of Myanmar is. Such people who lead a simple life on farms and who know nothing about urban life were killed, and fell victim to the conflict. They are frightened to death. They have lived and worked on hillside farms for generations and never experienced this before. Now, they have all moved.
KZM: Before you went to Maungdaw, the government declared ARSA a terrorist organization. Did you witness its activities on the ground in Maungdaw? To what extent is it involved in the Maungdaw [attacks]?
MM: What I found out is—I didn’t witness it—from the car I was in, I saw the location of a mine explosion on the way. It is obvious that ARSA has influence over local Muslim people. When I interviewed Muslim sources about ARSA, they were reluctant to answer. We must understand this. I also understand this, so I don’t disclose the identity of Muslim sources. Because if they criticize the government—they are businessmen and educated—it could impact their long-term relations [with the government]. But on the other hand, if they criticize ARSA and if we disclose their identity—there are previous examples of Muslim men beheaded after they gave interviews to the government. The situation is dangerous for them in the conflict zone.
KZM: Do you think this conflict will go on?
MM: It is very likely that it will continue. An Islamic State, which is the ultimate goal of ARSA according to their online video clips, will continue the conflict. This is quite sure. And regarding the geographical location of Maungdaw, it is surrounded by three large Muslim villages. There are at least 30,000 people. Of them, only Myo Thugyi is gone and two others remain intact. No houses were burned and there was no conflict there. So, it is fair to say there is still some hope for remedy. But if the goal of an Islamic State is real and people from those villages join them, the problem will get worse.
KZM: Thank you for your contribution!
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.