YANGON—Border police and Myanmar Army troops have been conducting joint patrols in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw District after local authorities received a tip off about possible militant activity by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) from residents on the Bangladesh side of the border.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of ARSA’s coordinated attacks on Myanmar government border outposts. The attacks killed dozens of government officials and sparked month-long clashes in Maungdaw that left several hundred militants dead. Both Muslim and non-Muslim civilians were targeted by the militant group. The Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) later launched clearance operations against the ARSA militants, but the indiscriminate actions of the security forces ended up driving around 700,000 Rohingya across the border into what has become the largest refugee camp in the world in neighboring Bangladesh.
The talk of renewed militant activity follows reports from Bangladeshi news outlets last month that the country’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) raided a gun factory in Kalarmar Chhara, in the Moheskhali area of Cox’s Bazar. According to the Daily Star’s website, the RAB apprehended two gun-making technicians identified as Abdul Hakim and Shahidullah, as well as 20 handmade firearms, a number of bullets, and equipment from the factory.
Asia Times regular contributor Bertil Lintner, who has covered rebel groups in Myanmar for decades, also wrote about the RAB gun seizure in Cox’s Bazar. His report stated that the factory produced guns for various criminal gangs in Bangladesh in past, as well as for militias associated with local politicians, and militant groups in Myanmar. His report cited Bangladeshi sources as saying that the factory was the source of weapons smuggled across Myanmar’s western border to Maungdaw and used by ARSA in its attacks on the border posts in August last year.
It remains unclear whether the tip off received by Maungdaw authorities was related to the gun factory raid.
Government administrative official U Myint Khine of Kyein Chaung sub-town in northern Maungdaw Township said security forces are always on standby in his region, but had not been reinforced. According to him, authorities were informed by Bangladesh residents about ARSA members’ activities in refugee camps. He acknowledged that the information was hard to confirm.
“It’s hard to judge whether the information is right or wrong. As you know this is a border region and the situation can change within hours. So all we can do is to prepare as best we can,” he said.
He explained that northern Maungdaw is geographically crucial for the militants’ movements; militants can cross the Bangladesh border into Myanmar side within an hour. Thus, officials at his location were prepared to take action.
“At the moment, concern is high among the residents,” U Myint Khine said.
Maungdaw district deputy director U Ye Htoo told The Irrawaddy that both Muslims and Buddhist Rakhine people are overwhelmingly concerned about surprise attacks by Muslim militants, as they had a really bad experience last year. Some are speculating that similar attacks could break out this month.
Several Muslim residents of both downtown Maungdaw and rural areas corroborated the statement by officials that people fear fresh attacks in the region, adding that groundless rumors are spreading rapidly. Abdul Rashid, a resident of downtown Maungdaw who asked that his name be changed for safety reasons, told The Irrawaddy that police convoys had been seen moving about this week, adding that on Friday morning, fully equipped soldiers and border police patrolled through the town twice. The police convoys contained about 6-7 trucks each, which carried soldiers from a battalion based in Buthidaung, he said.
“Many rumors have spread within the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, including that this time [the clashes] could be more serious than last time. Some Muslims are saying that the Rakhine people will eliminate the Muslims. On the Rakhine side, some are saying that this time the Muslims will wipe out the Rakhine people. Such baseless speculation is spreading on both sides,” said Abdul Rashid.
A displaced Rohingya from Rathedaung Township, Abdul Wahid, who has been sheltering with relatives in Buthidaung Township since October 2017, confirmed that about 60 armed border police and soldiers were counted in the area last week. According to him, Tatmadaw soldiers were on guard outside the village while dozens of police questioned Muslim residents of the village about whether any strangers had been seen.
According to Abdul Wahid, a new base housing a police regiment located on the former site of Ale Chaung (a former Rohingya village in Buthidaung that was razed during the Tatmadaw’s clearance operations last year) has seen an influx of some of 500 border police and soldiers. The village and police base are flanked by the Buthidaung-Nyaung Chaung Highway. In early April, The Irrawaddy reported on new border bases in Maungdaw established following the 2017 violence. These are now housing troops.
The Muslim village Myo Thu Gyi, located about 1.6 km from downtown Maungdaw and once home to some 8,600 Rohingya, was reduced to ashes and bulldozed to make way for a border police regiment and fully fenced in with barbed wire. Abdul Rashid explained that many structures are being built and that border police vehicles could clearly be seen in the compound. Although the base does not yet have a name, locals know it as the Myo Thu Gyi regiment. An official from Maungdaw confirmed the presence of the Myo Thu Gyi border police regiment and a new one in Inn Din village. Two other bases are planned but not yet operational, the official said.
When asked by The Irrawaddy whether these new border regiments could play a crucial role in security operations or in the event of unexpected militant attacks in future, the official said that parts of northern Maungdaw like Kha Maung Seik, Aung Zan, and Bandula villages are much more important than southern Maungdaw and urban areas. The Irrawaddy attempted to phone a border police major to obtain further information on new border police regiments in Maungdaw District but he could not be reached as of press time.