YANGON – The Myanmar Army gave verbal orders to villagers in northern Rakhine State to avoid entering the Mayu mountain range as they conduct clearance operations in Maungdaw Township, a border police major told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that the order was “to prevent fatalities.” Security forces have been carrying out such operations for months, searching for suspected Muslim militants in the region. Efforts appear to have intensified, with hundreds of soldiers arriving in two military aircrafts at Sittwe airport on Thursday and continuing on to Maungdaw the following day. Over the weekend, the authorities extended a curfew that was already in place in the township.
Reports of the most recent verbal order for locals to avoid the highlands came after a meeting between military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and a seven-member delegation from the Arakan National Party (ANP) in Naypyitaw last week.
The nationalist party representatives demanded further troop deployment around ethnic Arakanese villages in Maungdaw Township as eight people from Kai Gyee village were found dead on Aug. 3 with gunshot and machete wounds, suspected to have been killed by militants.
The police major could not provide The Irrawaddy with an estimated timeframe for the current military operation as he said the mission is directly supervised by army officers. The Irrawaddy repeatedly phoned Maungdaw district administrative officials on Monday for details, but there was no answer at their headquarters.
Head of the police station in neighboring Buthidaung Township Lt Kyaw Khine briefly acknowledged that the verbal order by army was made days ago but that it has not been officially announced within the region.
“As far as I know, army units have been assigned to ethnic villages which are situated near the Mayu mountains,” he said, referring to Buddhist Arakanese communities.
Ko Maung Soe Win, an Arakanese resident of Zay Di Pyin village in northern Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township, told The Irrawaddy that both Muslim and Buddhist residents were told by army officials not to set foot in the Mayu mountains, where they typically gather edible plants. He added that villagers are also afraid to go their paddy fields, which are situated near Muslim villages, noting that levels of mistrust between the communities are particularly high.
A Muslim resident of Zay Di Pyin, Al-Haj Zawhie Thra, said that authorities officially announced a curfew banning people from going out in the evenings and gatherings of five or more in public. He added that around five army infantry units had deployed near the Mayu highlands.
“Carrying out law enforcement in an unstable situation is a good idea, but the authorities should also consider the challenges of villagers’ daily life,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Zawhie Thra said that after hundreds of Muslim residents in Outt Nan village confronted security forces last week as they attempted to arrest six men, the authorities created a barbed-wire fence between Muslim and Buddhist quarters in nearby Zay Di Pyin village and blocked all road entrances, effectively segregating the community.
The market, he explained, is located in the Buddhist Arakanese quarter and Muslims have not been allowed to either shop there or sell their goods since last week.
“Some poor people are now facing a great dilemma,” Zawhie Thra said.
Meanwhile, farmers from Kai Gyee in Maungdaw are asking that the entire community be evacuated to another neighboring Arakanese village after their rice is harvested in the forthcoming cool season, said U Khin Maung Than, head of the Maungdaw chapter of the ANP. According to local Arakanese publication Narinjara, state authorities visited Kai Gyee on Monday, reportedly asking the villagers not to leave and promising them protection, a new school and road, and solar panels.
Currently, farmers from Kai Gyee village are cultivating their paddies under the protection of security guards, U Khin Maung Than said.