On October 9, 2016, dozens of armed men attacked three police outposts in Maungdaw township in Rakhine, a volatile state on the western side of Burma that borders Bangladesh. Nine police officers were killed and the attackers managed to seize a number of weapons. The Burmese President’s Office blamed a previously unknown Rohingya group called Aqa Lul Mujahidin. This new group is reported to have links to the Organization for Rohingya Security, an armed group which was active in the 1990’s but has faded from view in the past few years. Other officials, however, have said that the government is still uncertain about the identity of the armed men.
In the wake of the attacks, security forces locked down the historically volatile state and launched a sweep to find the perpetrators. The security forces have denied both journalists and humanitarian groups access to what they are calling an “operation zone”.
Rohingya activists, however, accuse the security forces of targeting their community and committing rampant abuses, including burning and looting of villages, rape and summary executions.
Though lack of access prevents an accurate account, an estimated 18,000 people are thought to have been displaced by the security operation, according to Human Rights Watch. An estimated 15,000 are Rohingya. Several amateur videos posted online showed their flight.
A long history of persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma has left this Muslim minority community vulnerable. Technically, the Rohingya remain stateless due to a 1982 law denying them Burmese citizenship. Hundreds were killed and thousands left homeless in Rakhine state during ethnic and religious violence between Rohingya and the Rakhine Buddhist majority in 2012. Others fled the country.
“All of the homes were looted, including mine”
Burmese authorities accuse us of attacking security forces, but we don’t know anything. On Oct. 23, the police major called two regional MVs [Editor’s note: Farukh is referring to elders and religious leaders in the Rohingya community]. He told them that all the Rohingya had to leave the east hamlet by 6pm; if not, we would be shot [Editor’s note: Other sources reported that the “middle hamlet” was targeted, not the “east”].
We left our homes and fled to other villages around Maungdaw [Editor’s note: the largest city in the township]. We had to go by foot. I was with my mother, my three sisters and my three teenage nephews.
Our entire community of more than 2,000 people was displaced. We later found out that more than 40 homes in our village were burned to the ground by the army, police and locals who are ethnically Rakhine. All of the homes were looted, including mine.
Now, my family and I are staying in a tent in a neighbouring village. Many of us are camping in [rice] fields and we are finding it very hard. We don’t have food and we are frightened of more threats. We need emergency help, but no one is helping us.
Human Rights Watch called on Burmese authorities to allow aid deliveries to reach Rohingyas like Farukh who have been displaced from the violence.
The World Food Programme said that up to 50,000 may be trapped without food aid in Maungdaw.
On Wednesday, the Myanmar Times quoted officials who said that displaced Muslim residents were already returning home. However, this contrasts starkly with the account of Farukh as well as various human rights groups and Rohingya activists.
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for proper investigations to be carried out and for no one to be accused for the attacks on police until solid evidence is obtained. UN human rights experts have applauded this statement, but called for a probe into allegations of abuses against Rohingya civilians.