MAUNGDAW, Rakhine State — Muslims in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township told The Irrawaddy they have rejected the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) attempts to recruit villagers in recent weeks.
Self-identifying Rohingya villagers from the Shwe Zar village tract—an area home to 13,000 people, most of whom are Muslims, but among the residents are Hindus and Buddhists—told The Irrawaddy that they had responded firmly to pressure from the group.
Sarad Ah Mein, a medic from Shwe Zar’s Kat Pa Kaung village, said ARSA members had approached the village tract committee weeks ago about recruitment.
“They came at night,” he said. “We refused to accept the terrorists’ mobilization. Our committee rejected them in their approach,” he told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, referring to the ARSA. The organization has been denounced as a terrorist group by the government after it attacked 30 police outposts on Aug. 25. Military clearance operations have since ensued in the region, and 146,000 Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, according to UN figures. The government has said that 27,000 Buddhist and Hindu villagers are internally displaced.
“We told them, ‘please don’t trouble the villages. If you do so, we all will suffer a lot. Please go back,’” Sarad Ah Mein said, recalling the meeting. “We all have been living with Rakhine [Buddhists] here and we haven’t had any problems. We want to keep living in that way.”
Mamud Jolly, another villager from Shwe Zar, reiterated the community’s rejection of the ARSA’s tactics. “We don’t accept them. We don’t support any terrorism act. That’s what I want to say.”
Sarad Ah Mein alleged that to speak negatively about the ARSA was dangerous, and that to do so would be a risk to their lives.
According to the government statistics, 63 Muslims have believed to have been killed by militants between October 2016—when the first attacks on police outposts were launched—and mid-August of this year.
Displacement and Insufficient Aid
Since the Aug. 25 attacks, the Myanmar government has responded to the ARSA with intensified military action in the region, causing mass displacement across communities. Northern Rakhine State remains embroiled in conflict and those internally displaced or trapped in their villages are in need of humanitarian aid.
Maungdaw, once a bustling border town focused on trade, had grown quiet on Wednesday, when The Irrawaddy visited. Few shops opened, and many houses appeared locked. The area remains under a dusk-to-dawn curfew, but administrative staff who fled to the state capital of Sittwe last week have since returned.
The Shwe Zar area saw a clash between Muslims and Hindus on Aug. 26 in a village bazaar, after which Hindus and Buddhists reportedly fled. Apart from this, Shwe Zar initially seemed to have been spared some of the violence of the surrounding areas, which has included the torching of homes and mass displacement.
According to an update from the Government Information Committee on Wednesday, 6,845 houses in 60 villages had been burned down. The government said the fires were set by the ARSA and its supporters. Militants, in turn, cite the army as the perpetrators.
But the number is almost certainly higher at the time of reporting, as The Irrawaddy witnessed the burning of dozens of houses in Gawdu Zara Muslim village, near Maungdaw, on Thursday afternoon. There are also reports that houses were torched near Kyein Chaung village—home to both Buddhists and Muslims—on Wednesday night.
Munee, a Muslim woman and mother of four from the Shwe Zar tract, told The Irrawaddy that villagers were short of food since the bazaar had closed.
“We are told by the police just to stay in our village and not to worry,” she said.
Her husband works in Malaysia, Munee explained, adding that he was unable to transfer her necessary funds because markets, shops and private banks were closed.
“I don’t know what to say. We just cry and cannot think of anything,” she said. “We can’t go out either to Maungdaw or to other villages. We have no support from either from the government or NGOs.”
Sarad Ah Mein explained that villagers have had to halt their work as fishermen and traders, as they are confined to their villages. The consequence, he said, “is that we are in need of food.”
Yet government representatives maintain that they are providing aid to those in need.
Local and national civil society groups are offering support to some of the displaced, but many remain beyond the reach of these efforts, particularly in overcrowded temporary relief camps.
As is true elsewhere in Myanmar, women and children make up the majority of the displaced in Rakhine State. Hindus taking shelters at one of eight relief camps in Maungdaw told The Irrawaddy on Monday that they want to go home as soon as possible, but only with a guarantee for their security.
However, Maungdaw District administrator U Ye Htut said that the district remains an “operational area,” or a conflict zone.