In Person

‘They Worry About Their Lives’

By Nyein Nyein 11 September 2017

Since Muslim militants attacked police stations in northern Rakhine State on Aug. 25, some 300,000 self-identifying Rohingya have fled the Bangladesh border while about 30,000 ethnic Arakanese have fled to state capital Sittwe.

Some Arakanese, however, stayed in their villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung—the two townships hit hardest by the violence.

The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society group’s relief team has been providing assistance to those affected people in the area since Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched its attacks.

One of the relief team’s members, Daw Mee Mee, spoke to The Irrawaddy about her experiences and perspectives of the recent conflict.

Where in Maungdaw did you arrive?

We arrived at Sittwe on September 2 and the next morning continued to Maungdaw, the conflict zone. We requested the security come with us to provide assistance to those trapped villages, as they didn’t have much support. We had to wait two nights to get the security, and then went to Kyein Chaung village with five police officers, but they switched with another team of five when we arrived. We slept in Kyein Chaung for the night but then the next morning we did not have any security with us so we returned to Maungdaw.

We heard there are improvised landmines along the road to Kyein Chaung. Did you see the clearing of those mines?

They [the security] cleared the improvised landmines early in the morning. We arrived there in the afternoon, after they did the clearance. On the way to Kyein Chaung, we were only faced with the terrible road and our trucks were bogged down in the mud, but we encountered no mines. On our return journey, we also had to wait for two hours for them to clear mines, so we did not see any. But we saw houses in flames from afar and heard gunfire over night in Kyein Chuang.

Local residents are extremely concerned about their security. What’s your assessment of the government’s security preparations? And in order to relieve residents’ concerns, what should the government do?

We heard about their concerns in Kyein Chaung. When we arrived at the village, at night, shops in front of the police’s special branch office were on fire. People were so afraid. We had for big trucks carrying food items, but on our way back, people hurriedly climbed on to those trucks. People also fled from Yan Aung Myint village, where the fighting happened. They wanted to get away from the villages as soon as possible and would not listen to us; we could not deter them. So we brought them with us to Maungdaw.

The public would not be in fear if they were sure they had protection. What we saw was defensive measures instead of prevention from the attacks, and then the clearance operations followed.

According to an officer, a corporal was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED). The security forces told me they could not follow the attackers after encountering the trapped mines. The attackers have complete awareness of the region. Security forces had to focus on taking the injured men to hospital in order to save their lives, so they could not follow the attackers. Local people staying in the village must be freed from fear. When I talked to them, they said they do not worry about their food—they worry about their lives.

Now is very different from the incidents back in 2012. The attacks were an intrusion on our sovereignty. It is very important for our country and for our people.

There are accusations the Tatmadaw planted the mines and set fires. Did local people talk of such incidents? Could they freely talk about it?

Many people say they [militants] burned their own houses and fled. But I did not witness it myself. What we saw were houses in flames.

People are questioning whether Muslim militants could burn their own homes and then flee. What is your view on it?

I could not tell who torched the houses, but what I can surely tell is, there are attacks using homemade bombs, IEDs and shooting. And there is counter shooting. In our country, only the Myanmar armed forces—Tatmadaw and police forces—have arms. Why did the villagers have such weapons, and why did they shot with guns and homemade guns and attacked with trapped mines? Their actions not only target government institutions but also civilians. Burning homes or not, the most important thing is these actions are trying to violate our country’s sovereignty.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.