Myanmar to arm and train non-Muslim citizens in Rakhine State

Human rights groups say the move could worsen the situation on the ground.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Police Major General Thura San Lwin (right) spoke to the media outside police headquarters in Kyee Kan Pyin village outside Maungdaw.

Myanmar police will begin arming and training non-Muslim residents in the troubled north of Rakhine State, police and civilian officials have said.

Human rights monitors and a leader of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority said the move, which was announced on Wednesday, risked sharpening intercommunal tensions in the region.

Rakhine state has just seen its bloodiest month since 2012, when hundreds of people were killed in clashes between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.

Additional troops have arrived in the Maungdaw area along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on October 9 in which nine police officers were killed.

Security personnel have poured into northern Rakhine following the October 9 attack. (Reuters)

Security forces have locked down the area - shutting out aid workers and independent observers - and conducted sweeps of villages in Maungdaw, where the vast majority of residents are Rohingyas. Official reports say five soldiers and 33 alleged militants have been killed.

Residents of the restive region say civilians have been killed, raped and arbitrarily detained. Houses have been razed to the ground. The government has denied abuses by troops.

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has not directly commented on calls from human rights experts urging the government to investigate the allegations of abuse, or on statements from human rights monitors. But she has urged security forces to exercise restraint and act lawfully.

"The problem in Rakhine state is extremely delicate and care is needed in responding," Suu Kyi said on Wednesday.

"The Myanmar government is responding to the issue of Rakhine state based on the principles of the rule of law."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi (R) has faced mounting criticism abroad for her government's handling of the crisis in the Muslim-majority region. (AFP Archive)

Suu Kyi's government tried to assuage concerns over aid access and rights violations by inviting diplomats and the senior United Nations representative for the country to visit Rakhine.

The delegation urged Myanmar to probe reports of human rights abuses in the troubled state.

"Citizens only"

Ethnic Rakhine political leaders have urged the government to arm local Buddhists against what they say is rising militancy among the Rohingya.

Min Aung, a minister in the Rakhine State parliament and a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said the recruits would help protect residents from those responsible for the October 9 attacks.

The government says the attackers have links to militants overseas.

Only citizens would be eligible to sign up for the police training, Aung said, ruling out the 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Rakhine State, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.

Additional troops have arrived in the Maungdaw area along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh. (AFP)

Rakhine State police chief Colonel Sein Lwin said his force had started recruiting new "regional police" from among the ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslim ethnic minorities living in Maungdaw.

Educational and physical requirements for recruitment by the regular police would not apply, he said.

"But they have to be the residents," said Sein Lwin. "They will have to serve at their own places."

Police and civilian officials said the auxiliary police recruits would not form a new "people's militia", like those that fight ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Myanmar.

Such militias - which are often accused of abuses against civilians - raise their own funds and are overseen by the army. The new recruits in Rakhine will be paid and come under the control of the border police.

Will it work?

Human rights groups and international experts working to rebuild relations in Rakhine say arming and training local non-Muslims could make the situation on the ground worse.

"It's sad and telling that the authorities regard this move as part of a security solution," said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation.

Arming local Buddhists who may regard all Rohingyas as a threat to their safety was "a recipe for atrocity crimes", Smith said. "It can only inflame the situation and will likely lead to unnecessary violence."

Kyaw Win, an ethnic Rakhine resident of Kyein Chaung village, in Maungdaw, said on Wednesday that he was interested in signing up for the training, but said he doubted the plan would allay his community's security fears.

"It is not possible to live together with Muslims because they are invading and seizing our own land day by day," he said.

A Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw, who did not want to be named, said he was concerned Muslims might come under attack from the newly armed recruits.

"If they have guns in their hands, we won't be able to work together as before," he said.

In 2012 communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims resulted in the deaths of around 100 people and forced tens of thousands of Rohingyas to flee to displacement camps. (AFP Archive)

Rohingyas were made stateless with the passing of the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law (in 1989 the ruling miliary junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar). Since the law took effect they have been treated as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

They are only eligible to become citizens of Myanmar if they can prove that their ancestry dates back to 1832, when the country came under British rule.

Some 125,000 remain displaced and face severe travel restrictions in squalid camps since fighting erupted in Rakhine between Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012.

TRTWorld and agencies