Fears are growing in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw in western Myanmar after a video circulated showing Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) fighters conducting a drill in an area believed to be in the township.
ARSA leader Ata Ullah was seen along with two other key leaders as well as ARSA fighters in the video. Sources told The Irrawaddy that the drill took place somewhere in Maungdaw near the Bangladeshi border.
In December, residents of Khone Taing Village were allegedly attacked by ARSA fighters in a forest near their village.
Administrator of Khone Taing Village U Maung Hla told The Irrawaddy: “Twenty-three villagers from my village went to cut bamboo on Dec. 7, and they came across an ARSA group. They fired shots as our villagers ran away from them. One of our villagers was suffered a gunshot wound.”
The shooting occurred near Mt. La Baw Chaung, some 2 miles from Khone Taing Village. The victim is receiving treatment at Maungdaw Hospital. Locals dare not leave the village to find food following the incident.
“When it happened, it was not just one or two villagers. The villagers were in a large group of more than 20, but still they were shot at. So we are very concerned. No one dares to go out of the village to search for vegetables or fish. We have had to use caution,” a villager said.
Locals reported the shooting to border guard police. Troops from the ethnic Rakhine armed group the Arakan Army (AA) have come to the village and listened to the first-hand accounts of villagers.
A contractor repairing a road near Kha Maung Seik Village in Maungdaw has suspended operations and ordered his employees to return to town for fear of ARSA attacks.
Like Rakhine people, Muslim residents of the area also have concerns about the resurrection of ARSA, said Maungdaw resident U Ko Latt.
“It is fair to say that our region has been peaceful since ARSA disappeared. There has been no tension between the Rakhine and Muslim communities. As ARSA has resurfaced, local Rakhine people are concerned they will be attacked. People dare not go from village to village and work on farms far from their village now,” he said.
A Muslim village head from Maungdaw said: “We are concerned that things that happened in the past will happen again. We are also concerned that we will suffer the consequences of anything that ARSA may do. We only want to live a peaceful life now. We have no links to any group.”
Maungdaw resident and former Rakhine State parliamentarian U Tun Hla Sein said heavy clashes are unlikely.
“Locals have to use caution when they go from place to place. But I don’t think the group can carry out large-scale sneak attacks like it did before. I heard that large numbers of security forces have been deployed [in Maungdaw by the regime],” he said.
The Irrawaddy was unable to contact the regime’s Rakhine State security and border affairs minister, Colonel Kyaw Thura, or local authorities for comment.
ARSA attacked a vehicle transporting materials to build a fence at the border in March last year, killing a sub-lieutenant from the Myanmar military and three civilian workers.
There have been frequent reports of ARSA fighters crossing the border into Maungdaw, recruiting and providing military training in the Mayu Mountain Range, and extorting money in Muslim villages.
A resident of Mingalar Nyunt Village in Maungdaw encountered ARSA fighters while traveling to another village in December last year. His motorbike was torched by the ARSA fighters, though he escaped, village administration officials said.
In November, three residents of Ka Yay Myaing Village died and six others were injured in an alleged mine attack by ARSA on their vehicle.
ARSA first came under the spotlight after it attacked border guard force headquarters in October 2016, killing nine police officers. The group drew international attention when it launched coordinated attacks on 30 border guard police outposts on Aug. 25, 2017, following the release of the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Many Muslim villages were reduced to rubble in the military’s subsequent counterinsurgency operations, which also led to the exodus of some 700,000 self-identifying Rohingya to Bangladesh. They have not been able to repatriate to date.
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