By Francis Wade
Reports are emerging from northern Arakan state that Burmese troops and border security forces have rounded up and tortured villagers following alleged talks over the formation of an armed anti-government group.
Sources there claim that soldiers entered North Maungdaw township, which sits on the border between Burma and Bangladesh, at the end of February following a tip-off that religious clerics from the ethnic Muslim Rohingya group crossed over from Bangladesh to spearhead plans for an insurgent group.
Details of the subsequent round-up remain murky, although there is no evidence to suggest that Arakan locals consented to the discussion.
The Bangladesh-based Kaladan Press Network claims that 17 people were arrested and taken to a nearby base belonging to NaSaKa, the Burmese frontier security unit. Among these, Kaladan said, was a one-month-old baby who died after being kicked by a soldier, although this has not been independently verified.
Chris Lewa, head of The Arakan Project, which works with Rohingya communities in the impoverished state, quoted reports that a local village chairman and his relatives were arrested after soldiers accused them of not informing on the talks.
Numbers of villagers from Khamaung Zeik in the mountainous region of far northern Maungdaw township, where the unidentified clerics (or maulvis in Arabic) first arrived, then fled into the jungle and across the border to Bangladesh.
The Burmese security force charged with protecting the Bangladeshi border, NaSaKa, then began to arrest numbers of women and children in Khamaung Zeik, where they destroyed two houses, before moving on to Mar Zay village and Aung Tha Pyay village, which lie downstream from Khamaung Zeik. The subsequent move suggests the clerics may have visited those villages too.
Lewa also quoted local sources who said the village heads of Khamaung Zeik and Aung Tha Pyay “were severely tortured and have been transferred to the NaSaKa headquarters for further interrogation”.
Arakan state has Burma’s largest Muslim population, and anti-government sentiment, particularly among the persecuted Rohingya minority, is high. Mujahideen groups are known to have operated in the region in the past, but their presence waned following the 1962 coup that ushered in military rule in Burma.
Lewa said that her group was puzzled about the identity of the clerics and the exact number of them, as well as their intention to stir unrest along religious lines. She added that there was no evidence to link them to mujahideen groups or the Rohingya Solidarity Organisaiton, which formed in 1963 to fight for an Islamic autonomous Arakan state.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled persecution in Burma to live in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. The men who broke the news of the wave of arrests had fled Maungdaw in late February and arrived in makeshift camps near to Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Kaladan reported that NaSaKa commanders have since order villagers in their Nasaka Sector 2 territory, where Khamaung Zeik village lies, not to cooperate with strangers and inform authorities if additional sightings of the clerics are made.