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Northern Rakhine State clashes

A series of violent clashes have been ongoing in the northern part of Myanmar's Rakhine State since October 2016. The violence has been characterised by attacks against Rohingya Muslim civilians by Myanmar's military and the local Buddhist population,[12][13][14][15] as well as armed clashes between the government forces and Rohingya insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. The conflict has sparked international outcry from governments and citizens and was described as ethnic cleansing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.[15][16] In August 2017 the situation intensified and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Myanmar into Bangladesh, with an estimated 429,000 refugees having arrived by 22 September 2017.[17][18]

The Muslim Rohingya minority in the region has historically experienced persecution.[19][20][21] Laws such as the 1982 Myanmar nationality law ban Rohingya people from obtaining citizenship and since Burmese independence from the United Kingdom, over a dozen rounds of attacks against Rohingya have led to their dislocation from much of Rakhine State.[22] Most recently the 2012 and the 2013 attacks caused mass displacements.

The current conflict began in October 2016 when ARSA insurgents attacked Burmese border posts along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. In response, Myanmar authorities launched a military campaign against the Rohingya and from October 2016 to June 2017, government operations killed more than 1,000 Rohingya civilians, according to UN officials.[19][7] In August 2017, following attacks on local military outposts by Rohingya rebels, a resurgence in violence erupted throughout northern Rakhine. According to the UN and other agencies, the Myanmar military, aided by violent mobs of local Buddhist Rakhines killed over 400 people (whom the military claimed were "insurgents" or "terrorists"). Other estimates, including the UN's, estimate of at least 1,000 people were killed between 25 August and 8 September.[18][9] By September, the violence had resulted in 389,000 Rohingyas fleeing their homes.[23]

Foreign leaders, including the United Nations Secretary General and other high UN officials, and the United Nations Security Council — while acknowledging the initial attack by Rohingya insurgents — have strongly criticized the Myanmar government's conduct in the current conflict, calling for the Myanmar government to restrain its forces and factions, and stop attacking civilians.[18]

Background

The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority that mainly live in the northern region of Rakhine State, Myanmar, and have been described as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.[24][25][26] They describe themselves as descendants of Arab traders and other groups who settled in the region many generations ago.[24] After riots in 2012, academic authors used the term Rohingya to refer to the Muslim community in northern Rakhine. For example, Professor Andrew Selth of Griffith University uses "Rohingya" but states "These are Bengali Muslims who live in Arakan State...most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries."[27] Among the overseas Rohingya community, the term has been gaining popularity since the 1990s, though a considerable portion of Muslims in northern Rakhine are unfamiliar with the term and prefer to use alternatives.[28][29] Scholars have stated that they have been present in the region since the 15th century.[30] However, they have been denied citizenship by the government of Myanmar, which describes them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[24]

In modern times, the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar dates back to the 1970s.[31] Since then, Rohingya people have regularly been made the target of persecution by the government and nationalist Buddhists.[20] The tension between various religious groups in the country had often been exploited by the past military governments of Myanmar.[24] According to Amnesty International, the Rohingya have suffered from human rights violations under past military dictatorships since 1978, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result.[32] In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had assisted with the repatriation of Rohingyas from Bangladesh, but allegations of human rights abuses in the refugee camps threatened this effort.[33] In 2015, 140,000 Rohingyas remained in IDP camps after communal riots in 2012.[34]

Timeline

2016

The Myanmar government claims that on 9 October, hundreds of unidentified insurgents attacked three Burmese border posts along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. According to government officials in the majority Rohingya border town of Maungdaw, the attackers brandished knives, machetes and homemade slingshots that fired metal bolts. Several dozen firearms and boxes of ammunition were stolen by the attackers from the border posts. The attack resulted in the deaths of nine border officers.[35][36][37][38] Four Burmese soldiers were also killed two days later.[39] Government officials in Rakhine State initially blamed the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), an Islamist insurgent group mainly active in the 1980s and 1990s, for the attacks[40] but a group calling itself Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement) later claimed responsibility.[41]

Following the October incidents, the Myanmar Army began a major crackdown in the villages of northern Rakhine State. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and many were arrested.[42] The military enforced a curfew and blocked food aid from the World Food Programme to 80,000 people in Rakhine State.[43] As the crackdown continued, the casualties increased. Arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, crimes against civilians, and looting were reportedly carried out.[44][45][25] According to media reports, hundreds of Rohingya people had been killed by December 2016, and many had fled Myanmar as refugees to take shelter in the nearby areas of Bangladesh.[46][47][48][26][42][excessive citations]

The chief of police in Rakhine State, Sein Lwin, announced on 2 November that his force had begun recruiting non-Rohingya locals for a new branch of "regional police", which would be trained in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and then sent back to their villages. The stated purpose of these forces was to defend villages against Rohingya insurgents; human rights organizations criticised the move as being likely to lead to further persecution of Rohingya civilians.[49][50] New clashes began on 13 November, resulting in the deaths of one policeman, one soldier and six insurgents and the arrest of 36 suspected insurgents.[38][51][52] Fighting continued and on the third day of fighting, the death toll rose to 134 (102 insurgents and 32 security forces). The government later announced that 234 people suspected of being connected to the attack had been arrested.[3]

2017

Early to mid-2017

Clashes between insurgents and the military continued in 2017. Burmese state media reported on 22 June that three insurgents had been killed by security forces in a raid on an insurgent camp supposedly belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), as part of a two-day "area clearance operation" by the government. Authorities confiscated gunpowder, ski masks and wooden rifles suspected to have been used for training.[53][54]

In February 2017, the United Nations accused Myanmar's military of mass killings and gang rapes, as well as burning down villages over the course of their "clearance operations". It stated that the military's operations had "likely" caused hundreds of deaths.[55] Two senior UN officials working in its two separate agencies in Bangladesh stated that more than 1,000 may have died per testimonies gathered from Rohingyas. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s presidential spokesman, Zaw Htay said that per latest reports from military commanders, fewer than 100 people had been killed.[56] The Government of Myanmar denied that there was a systematic campaign of rape, though acknowledges it may have been committed by "individual members of the security forces".[13]

A police document obtained by Reuters in March listed 423 Rohingyas detained by the police since 9 October 2016, 13 of whom were children, the youngest being ten years old. Two police captains in Maungdaw verified the document and justified the arrests, with one of them saying, "We the police have to arrest those who collaborated with the attackers, children or not, but the court will decide if they are guilty; we are not the ones who decide." Myanmar police also claimed that the children had confessed to their alleged crimes during interrogations, and that they were not beaten or pressured during questioning. The average age of those detained is 34, the youngest is 10, and the oldest is 75.[5][6]

Rakhine State police chief Sein Lwin announced on 27 June that security forces were on "high alert" after "masked assailants" killed several local administrators close to the Burmese government in the days prior.[57] A week later on 4 July, a mob of at least a hundred Rakhine Buddhists in Sittwe attacked seven Rohingya men from Dapaing camp for internally displaced persons with bricks,[58] killing one and severely injuring another. The Rohingya men were being escorted by police to Sittwe's docks to purchase boats, but were attacked despite armed guards being present nearby.[59][60][61] According to a spokesman for the Burmese Ministry of Home Affairs, an unarmed junior policeman was with the Rohingya men at the time of the attack, but was unable to stop the attackers.[58] One man was arrested in relation to the attacks on 26 July.[62]

Bodies of slain locals have been discovered over the course of the conflict; the government has stated that they were victims of Rohingya insurgents. The bodies of three Rohingya locals who had worked closely with the local administration were found in shallow graves in Maungdaw on 21 January. The government suspected that they were murdered by Rohingya insurgents in a reprisal attack.[63] Three decapitated bodies were found in Rathedaung Township on 31 July. According to a government official, they were murdered by Rohingya insurgents.[64] The bodies of six ethnic Mro farmers, reportedly killed by Rohingya insurgents, were found in Maungdaw Township on 3 August.[65][66][67]

25 August 2017 ARSA attacks

The government announced on 25 August that 71 people (one soldier, one immigration officer, 10 policemen and 59 insurgents) had been killed overnight during coordinated attacks by up to 150 insurgents on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base in Rakhine State.[68][69][70] The Myanmar Army stated that the attack began at around 1:00 AM, when insurgents armed with bombs, light weapons and machetes blew up a bridge. The army further stated that a majority of the attacks occurred around 3:00 AM to 4:00 AM.[71]

The ARSA claimed they were taking "defensive actions" in 25 different locations and accused government soldiers of raping and killing civilians. The group also claimed that Rathedaung had been under a blockade for more than two weeks, starving the Rohingya, and that the government forces were preparing to do the same in Maungdaw.[72]

Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, sharply criticized the insurgent Rohingya attacks as an attempt to undermine others' efforts to "build peace and harmony in Rakhine state."[21]

August–September 2017 crisis

Following the ARSA attacks of 25 August, the Myanmar military led a crackdown against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The military has referred to the action as "clearance operations".[73] However, the military is also believed to be targeting Rohingya civilians in an attempt to drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar.[74][75][76]

On August 26, Myanmar troops opened fire on Rohingya civilians as they attempted to escape into Bangladesh.[76][77]

The violence resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Myanmar's Rakhine state. At least 1,000 have been killed as of September 7, according to Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar. She added that the figure is "very likely an underestimate".[9] On the same day the Burmese military acknowledged "nearly 400" deaths,[73][75] but claimed they were mostly "terrorists" or "militants." However, Rohingya accounts indicate that most of the dead were non-combatant civilians, including women and children.[75][19]

Rohingya refugees quickly began fleeing Myanmar by the thousands,[78][73] then, within two weeks, by the hundreds of thousands.[79][80] By September 12, authorities in Bangladesh and aid agencies were reporting 370,000 refugees had fled Myanmar, mostly Rohingya Muslims (about a third of the estimated Rohingya population in Myanmar),[81] but also hundreds of Hindus and Buddhists.[82]

Rohingya refugees arrived in Bangladesh with many injuries among them, including bullet wounds, and reported fleeing indiscriminate shootings, rapes, torture and other violent acts against Rohingya civilians[73][74] by mobs of Buddhist Rakhine civilians and Myanmar government forces,[73] including upon whole villages,[73] many of which were burnt down[75][73] (reportedly some with villagers, even children, confined in the burning structures by their attackers).[73]

When Human Rights Watch published satellite photos showing villages on fire,[83][84] the Burmese government acknowledged that Rohingya houses were burned, but again insisted (as they did in 2012) that the Rohingya insurgents were burning their own villages.[75][73] However, a group of reporters, on a government-guided tour, apparently caught Rakhine civilians torching empty Rohingya houses,[73] and one reporter was told by a Rakhine civilian that the police had assisted them.[73]

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the violence appeared to be "a textbook example of 'ethnic cleansing.'"[81]

Starting 6 September, reports emerged of Mynamar military had begun laying landmines near the border with Bangladesh.[85] Bangladesh said it had photographic evidence of Myanmar laying mines,[86] and lodged an official complaint.[85] Though Myanmar had laid mines in the area in the 1990s, it denied laying mines recently. (Laying of landmines became illegal under international law in 1997). On 10 September, Amnesty International accused Myanmar of laying mines.[87] The purpose of laying mines is believed to be to prevent the Rohingya refugees from returning.[86] At least three people, including two children, had been injured in landmines as of 10 September.[74][87]

A one-month unilateral ceasefire was declared by the ARSA on 9 September, in an attempt to allow aid groups and humanitarian workers safe access into northern Rakhine State.[88][89][90] In a statement, the group urged the government to lay down their arms and agree to their ceasefire, which would have been in effect from 10 September until 9 October (the one-year anniversary of the first attacks on Burmese security forces by the ARSA). The government rejected the ceasefire, saying that they do not "negotiate with terrorists". Zaw Htay, the spokesperson for the State Counsellor's office, stated, "We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists."[75][91]

By 17 September 2017, as the violence and flight of refugees continued, with the Myanmar government reporting 176 of 471 Rohingya villages abandoned. 430,000 Rohingya had reportedly fled into neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladesh announced plans to build shelters for 400,000 refugees and start immunizations, but began restricting their movements.[92][93][94]

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres urged Myanmar State Counsellor Suu Kyi to use her planned speech to her nation, 19 September to stop the offensive, warning that if she did not, "I don't see how this can be reversed in the future".[93] However, U.S. diplomats — while demanding that "this persecution must stop", attempted to be supportive of Suu Kyi's fragile, new civilian-leader position in a nation still largely ruled by the military.[93][92][94][95][96] Suu Kyi's speech was later criticized by Amnesty International as “a mix of untruths and victim-blaming”.[97]

Bangladesh meanwhile in August 2017 proposed joint military operations with Myanmar against ARSA.[98] In September 2017, it accused Myanmar of repeatedly violating its airspace and issued a warning stating that any more "provocative acts" could have "unwarranted consequences". Myanmar spokesman, Zaw Htay, stated Myanmar would check any information Bangladesh provided.[99]

Humanitarian crisis

Displaced Hindu families at a makeshift camp in Maungdaw.

4,000 non-Muslim villagers were evacuated by security forces in late-August amid ongoing clashes. According to estimates by Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, around 2,000 people crossed into Bangladesh.[100] The number of displaced non-Muslims later rose to 30,000 in early-September.[101] According to the United Nations, at least 270,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in just two weeks following renewed violence that began on 25 August 2017.[102][9] Prior to which, two refugee camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh were already home to nearly 34,000 Rohingya refugees.[103] On 1 September 2017, the bodies of 46 fleeing Rohingyas were found along the Naf River after their boat capsized in the Bay of Bengal.[104][105] On 6 September 2017, at least five children drowned when a Rohingya refugee boat sank at the mouth of the Naf river.[106] Some 23,000 others remain internally displaced within Rakhine State.[10]

In February 2017, the government of Bangladesh announced that it planned to relocate the new refugees and another 232,000 Rohingya refugees already in the country to Thengar Char, a sedimentary island in the Bay of Bengal.[107][108] The island first appeared around 2007, formed from washed down silt from the Meghna River.[107][108] The nearest inhabited land, Hatiya Island is around 30 kilometres (19 mi) away.[107] News agencies quoted a regional official describing the plan as "terrible".[108] The move has received substantial opposition from a number of quarters. Human rights groups have described the plan as a forced relocation.[108][107]

Hundreds of Hindus have also migrated to Bangladesh along with Rohingyas and complained of violence on their villages.[109][110][111] From 25 August 2017, when the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) launched their military operation in response to attacks by Rohingya militants, to 22 September 2017, satellite images showed that Rohingya villages were still being burned and an estimated 429,000 refugees had fled into Bangladesh[112] (creating a larger weekly outflow of refugees than the Rwandan genocide),[97] out of a pre-violence Rohingya population of about 1 million in Rakhine state.[97] Meanwhile, the bu

Human rights violations

A burnt down house in a Rohingya village in northern Rakhine State.

Arson

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) have been accused by the State Counsellor's office of committing arson on Buddhist monasteries and local police outposts, killing innocent civilians and planting landmines. The ARSA has meanwhile accused Myanmar Army of using civilians as human shields.[113]

A number of Rohingya properties were set alight during the violence, with residents blaming security forces while the government blamed Rohingya insurgents, suggesting that they had burnt down their own community's property.[114] According to the State Counsellor's office, insurgents had burnt down 88 homes, more than 100 shops, two mosques and eight religious schools, as well as vehicles in a village.[115][116]

Human Rights Watch in August 2017 said that satellite images showed widespread burning in 10 areas in northern Rakhine. While the causes of the fires could not be determined, the group said that it "compared the locations of these fires with witness statements it has collected and media reports, and found a correlation with some reported incidents where residences have allegedly been deliberately burned."[117] Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, has blamed the security forces of burning village after village in a systematic way while also blaming Rohingya arsonists of burning the Buddhist village of Pyu Ma.[118]

Violence on civilians

There were also reports of mass killings of Rohingyas by the military and Buddhist vigilantes in Chut Pyin village near Rathedaung. Lewa stated that they had received reports of 130 being killed in the village. A video provided to ABC News by a human rights monitor purportedly shows the village burning and in another clip of freshly dug earth mound, allegedly graves of those killed.[119] Bangladesh's Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali meanwhile has stated that Myanmar's security forces have killed over 3,000 Rohingyas during the 2017 clashes.[120] Meanwhile, Myanmar's military has accused Rohingya militants of killing 28 Hindus in Ye Baw Kya village in August 2017.[121]

Some members of the Hindu community have also fled to Bangladesh with some blaming soldiers or Buddhist vigilantes for violence against them while others have accused the Rohingya insurgents of attacking them on suspicion of being government spies.[122] Some of the Hindus who migrated to Bangladesh stated that their villages are also experiencing killings, torture and arson attacks like those of Rohingyas. 86 Hindus were killed by unidentified men in Myanmar according to the refugees and Rana Dasgupta, head of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council.[109][110][111]

The Burmese government and Rohingya advocates have both accused the other side of killing civilians. Advocates for the Rohingyas have claimed that many civilians have died in military attacks on villages. The government has accused the ARSA of killing civilians, including Hindus and Muslims, some of whom were suspected by the ARSA of being government informants.[123][116][124] ARSA in a statement has dismissed government allegations against it as baseless, seeking to present its cause as a defense of Rohingya rights.[125] The Border Guards Bangladesh station chief of the Ghumdum border post in Bangladesh has accused Myanmar's military of firing on fleeing Rohingyas. An Agence France-Presse reporter counted more than a dozen mortar shells and several heavy machine gun rounds fired by Burmese security forces on fleeing Rohingyas.[126]

Rape

Myanmar security forces have reportedly raped Rohingya women during the violence. In February 2017, the UN's Human Rights Office published a report accused the army and police forces in Myanmar of committing gang rapes against Rohingya women.[127][13] Systemic rape of Rohingya women has also been reported by Amnesty International,[128] Human Rights Watch,[129] and other NGOs. Reuters,[130] IRIN,[131] NPR,[132] and Myanmar Times[133] have all published reports of rape. Myanmar denies that there is a systematic campaign of rape, though acknowledges it may have been committed by "individual members of the security forces".[13]

Reports of rape began in October 2016. On October 27, the Myanmar Times published an article reporting "dozens" of rapes in northern Rakhine state.[134][133] The journalist who wrote that piece was later fired, allegedly due to government pressure.[133] On October 28, Reuters interviewed eight women who reported being raped by soldiers at gun point.[130] In April 2017, National Public Radio interviewed 12 women from different villages who all reported rape.[132] IRIN reported instances of rape in May 2017.[131]

Myanmar military is known to have committed rapes before.[132] It was widely reported that in 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi herself said "In the areas of the ethnic nationalities, rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities."[131]

Reactions

The military crackdown on Rohingya people drew criticism from various quarters. On 30 December 2016, nearly two dozen prominent human rights activists, including Malala Yousafzai, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson, called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene and end the "ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" being perpetrated in northern Rakhine State.[135]

United Nations high officials, and international organizations such as the human rights group Amnesty International, have labeled the military crackdown on the Rohingya minority as "crimes against humanity" and "ethnic cleansing", adding that the military had made the civilians a target of "a systematic campaign of violence".[48][136][137][24]

In August 2017, a government-appointed commission rejected allegations of human rights violations and ethnic cleansing, calling them "exaggerations".[138][139] In September 2017, Desmond Tutu wrote an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi urging her "to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people".[102][9]

Nobel Laureates Malala[140] and Bishop Tutu again appealed to Aung San Suu Kyi to intercede on behalf of the Rohingya, and on 6 September 2017 Pope Francis called for an end to "persecution" of the Rohingya.[21] On September 14, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, "I think it is important that the global community speak out in support of what we all know the expectation is for the treatment of people regardless of their ethnicity... This violence must stop, this persecution must stop."[141] Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May's spokesman announced on September 19 that UK will stop training Myanmar's armed forces until the crisis is resolved.[142]

Misleading images

Misleading images have been used alongside claims of violence in the conflict, both by the Rohingya and against them. The difficulty of checking authenticity of images has proven a challenge for researchers. In 2016, a United Nations Commission on Human Rights report stated that it would not use any photograph or video that it had not taken itself.[143] In August 2017, one of the images shared on Twitter by Mehmet Şimşek, a Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, was of the Rwandan genocide. He later deleted the image and issued a correction.[144] In September 2017, a photo emerged allegedly showing several Rohingyas setting fire to buildings in their own villages, but were two of the people pictured in the photo were later recognised as Hindus by journalists in a nearby school building. The Eleven Media Group published an article showing burned Rohingya homes in Ka Nyin Tan, with government spokesman Zaw Htay tweeting a link to it with the caption "Photos of Bengalis setting fire to their houses!". However, one person in the photos was later found at the public school housing shelter for displaced Hindus.[145]

Advisory Commission on Rakhine State

In August 2016, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was invited to head the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, which was responsible for addressing human rights violations in the region.[146] The complete report was published a year later by the Kofi Annan Foundation and accepted by the government of Myanmar in August 2017,[147] in which it cited 10% of the world's stateless people as having originated from Rakhine State.[148] One of Kofi Annan's final statements after completing the commission's mandate was this:

We propose a ministerial-level appointment to be made with the sole function of coordinating policy on Rakhine State and ensuring the effective implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission's recommendations. The appointee should be supported by a permanent and well-staffed secretariat, which will be an integral part of the Central Committee on Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State and support its work.[149]

The Rakhine Commission released its report on 25 August, the same day new clashes erupted in the region.[71] Massive retaliatory Burmese military attacks and Buddhist mob attacks ensued, leading to a further escalation in the regional humanitarian crisis.[150][151]

Following the deaths of over a thousand civilians in the ensuing violence and the exodus of over 350,000 Rohingya refugees, the office of the President of Myanmar announced on 12 September that it had formed a new 15-member committee to implement the recommendations of the Rakhine Commission.[151]

The Implementation Committee of Rakhine Advisory Committee, the president's office stated, was formed to adhere to the recommendations set for improving the security, social affairs and economic development of Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, improving the sustainability of ethnic villages, removing camps for the displaced and accelerating the citizen verification process for Rohingyas under Myanmar's citizenship laws.[151]

International reaction

International condemnation of government and government-supported civilian attacks on Rohingyas and other minorities in the region led to widespread public protests around the world, in countries such as France and Indonesia.[152][153][154]

The State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, has been criticised by the international community for not condemning the violence or the Burmese Army's military response to the crisis.[75] Aung San Suu Kyi was initially backed by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi; however, the government of India quickly urged "restraint" in the "anti-terrorism" operations.[155][156]

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