RANGOON – Muslims in northern Arakan State have demanded the release of family members detained for questioning by security forces if they have not yet been charged with a crime, according to a statement released on Wednesday by the State Counselor’s Office Information Committee.
The call comes after a three-day visit by the Arakan State Investigation Committee—led by the military-appointed Vice President U Myint Swe—to villages in northern Maungdaw Township, which ended on Tuesday.
Wednesday’s statement indicated that commission members reportedly told villagers in the area that the government had released 49 detainees since clashes with militants had begun, but the death toll of local civilians and of detainees remains unknown.
According to official government statistics, 10 border police and seven soldiers were killed during attacks which began in the region in October. The Burma Army reports having killed 70 militants during the manhunt that followed and says it has detained 575 suspects. Among them, 88 people have been sentenced to prison terms and 470 are still being investigated.
Muslims from Nga Khu Ra village reported to commission members that their bazaar was burned down during the conflict. Ongoing clearance operations by security forces have also halted trade flow to their village, creating challenges in meeting basic needs.
Villagers said that aid, including food, had been insufficient. They also asked that schools be re-opened.
Last week, 14 foreign embassies in Burma—including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United States—issued a joint statement urging the government to resume all aid to northern Arakan State.
In its Wednesday statement, the State Counselor’s Office Information Committee said that aid organizations had been providing food for many Muslims in the area. However, northern Maungdaw villagers told The Irrawaddy international relief organizations have not been allowed to freely provide humanitarian assistance to Muslim communities.
A Muslim resident of Nga Khu Ra village, Ko Sonny, spoke with The Irrawaddy over the phone on Tuesday, said that he and other men from the village had fled the area during Vice President U Myint Swe’s visit as they feared being detained by security forces. After the security forces had left, he returned.
Because of this, Ko Sonny was not able to speak with the commission members about his experience of the conflict. He claimed that five men from Nga Khu Ra were gunned down by security forces during clearance operations when the villagers attempted to run. While he said that he had not witnessed sexual violence being carried out by the armed forces in his village, he said that he had heard that in neighboring villages, rapes of Muslim women had occurred.
“Men ran into the forest when the army came. Women and children were left in the village. The soldiers chose the beautiful women and took them to the forest and raped them, one after the other. That’s what the victims told me,” Ko Sonny said.
The Irrawaddy has not been able to carry out an independent investigation into these allegations.
International organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have reported evidence of widespread abuses in Arakan State, which government representatives have rejected.
The U Myint Swe-led investigation commission visited eight villages in northern Maungdaw where it has been alleged that government security forces committed rapes, extrajudicial killings and had set fire to homes during clearance operations.
In the village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, HRW analysis of satellite imagery showed the destruction of buildings, and allegations of sexual violence have since been put forward.
But in Wednesday’s statement, the commission claimed that during their visit, Kyet Yoe Pyin villagers had denied that such rights violations had occurred.
The Irrawaddy phoned commission member Dr. Aung Htun Thet, a former economic advisor to ex-president U Thein Sein, as well as Maungdaw district administrator U Ye Htut and the Arakan State social affairs minister Dr. Chan Tha, to provide comment on the trip and subsequent statement, but none of the individuals could be reached at the time of publication.
President U Htin Kyaw formed the 13-member Arakan State Investigation Committee in early December, not to be confused with the Kofi Annan-led Arakan State Advisory Commission. The task of the committee is to investigate the series of militant attacks on security forces that occurred on Oct. 9 and Nov. 12 and 13.
The commission will deliver its findings to the Union government in January.