COX'S BAZAR, BANGLADESH - FEBRUARY 8: People stand outside their shelters in Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camp on February 8, 2017 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. The United Nations estimates about 69,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar since October last year after the Burmese army launched a campaign it calls 'clearance operations' in response to an attack on border police. Based on reports, Bangladesh plans to proceed with a controversial plan to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to a remote island in Bay of Bengal, despite warnings it is uninhabitable and prone to flooding. Waves of Rohingya civilians have fled across the border since last year, most living in makeshift camps and refugee centers with harrowing stories on the Burmese army committing human-rights abuses, such as gang rape, arson and extrajudicial killing. The Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim group numbering about 1.1 million, are the majority in Rakhine state and smaller communities in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
© Getty

Before dawn on October 9, several hundred Muslim men gathered in northern Rakhine state to attack police posts near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. Armed with crude weapons and about 30 aged firearms, they raided three posts and made off with about 62 guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Nine policemen and eight attackers were killed; two were captured.

The long-planned operation was launched prematurely, when the group’s leaders realised that authorities had been tipped off, according to a detailed investigation by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. It was the first known operation of the group, which called itself Harakah al-Yaqin or “Faith Movement”.

In YouTube videos posted after the attack, members said their fight was not aimed at people of other religions and was "only against the Myanmar government". It was also the first concrete sign of organised armed resistance by a Rohingya group in decades.

The group is thought to number 400-600 men. Led by Rohingya veterans from Saudi Arabia, the operation was expertly planned, showing a high degree of discipline and co-ordination. More important, it signalled a new phase in the troubled history of Rakhine state and official oppression of the Rohingya, who are regarded as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations.

A Rohingya girl in downtown Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State © Carlos Sardina Galache

The military’s response has been ferocious. The armed forces, normally focused on fighting ethnic armed groups in northern Myanmar, moved hundreds of extra troops and police units into Rakhine. In the ensuing weeks, they raided villages in the Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathidaung areas, rounding up at least 600 suspects. Most have been held in military camps and remain undocumented.

Most have been held in military camps and remain undocumented. They have not been visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite official claims to the contrary. Before the attacks the ICRC regularly conducted prison visits in Rakhine, among other regions.

As of early February, about 1,500 houses in 30 villages had been torched and nearly 70,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh, according to United Nations agencies. At least 23,000 people have been internally displaced and more than 100 killed.

Government officials claim that in some cases, Rohingya villagers burnt their own homes, and blame internal conflicts for a recent series of murders. Rohingya groups have vehemently denied the charges, supported by human rights investigators. Independent researchers agree that the Rohingya are deeply divided about support for the militants.

UN officials, diplomats and aid workers say the numbers of displaced, detained and killed are far higher than official figures. The facts are difficult to verify, aid officials note, because access to affected areas remains restricted.

The military’s "clearance operations", aimed at flushing out suspected militants in the northern Rakhine region, have subsided amid intensifying international criticism, although affected areas remain under strict curfew and villagers are still being detained and questioned, according to some aid workers.

Government insiders say there is growing alarm not just within the civilian government but also among military commanders about the consequences of the backlash over human rights abuses.

A recent report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, detailing military abuse of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh, has elevated international concerns to new levels. According to government sources, the report's suggestion of possible "crimes against humanity" shook Myanmar's de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The Pope also issued a rebuke, warning on February 8 that the Rohingya minority had been tortured and killed "simply because they wanted to live their culture and Muslim faith".

Some within Suu Kyi's administration — including the state counsellor — fear that such condemnation could rebound on Myanmar's efforts to attract investment and, possibly, on the increased inflows of international aid that have followed her party's April 1 accession to government.

Officials in Naypyidaw admit to concerns that western donors might attach conditions to new aid, demanding improvements in human rights in Rakhine. On the military front, the armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have been negotiating involvement in international peacekeeping operations and in western military education programs for officers. "All that could be off, if the situation deteriorates," said a Yangon-based European diplomat.

On a more practical front, international relief agencies fear a new refugee crisis is brewing in the region, amid Bangladeshi plans to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya to a barren outcrop in the Bay of Bengal. "It's a guarantee that you will see another wave of desperate people taking to the sea in rickety vessels," said an aid worker in Sittwe, the Rakhine capital. 

Even more dangerous are simmering tensions between Rakhine Buddhists, who account for about two thirds of the state's 3.1m people, and Muslims, who dominate the state's northern region but are a small minority in the south. 

While images of recent military brutality have caught the world's attention, vicious communal conflict between Buddhists and Rohingya drove earlier violence in 2012 and 2013. That conflagration, triggered by hard-line Buddhist groups in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men, drove tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya refugees to flee by sea, and left more than 140,000 displaced people in makeshift camps dotted throughout Rakhine, where most still reside.

Myanmar's government is now permitting UN agencies and other organisations to deliver food and supplies to most villages in northern Rakhine, but only through local staff, according to Mark Cutts, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar.

While welcoming the recommencement of aid flows, he said staff have been unable to resume detailed needs assessments and protection activities. 

"Humanitarian action is not just about delivering food and other relief supplies. It's about ensuring that people feel safe and are able to live in dignified conditions," Mr Cutts said. "With at least 93,000 people having fled their homes, with many houses burned and with numerous reports of human rights violations, we remain extremely concerned and continue to call on the government to allow unfettered access for humanitarian workers."

For Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and former political prisoner, it is both ironic and tragic that her administration is engulfed in controversy over its human rights record. When her National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 2015, the country — and the international community — hailed a new era. Domestically, Suu Kyi still commands admiration from her vast base of supporters, even though many complain about delays in reforms. 

To an outsider, though, it is striking how little Rakhine is discussed in Myanmar, outside the state. In a country of some 53m people, with 135 officially recognised ethnicities, that fact speaks volumes about the extent of anti-Muslim attitudes among the overwhelmingly Buddhist population.

Hurdles to citizenship for the Rohingya, starting with official demands to drop their self-identification, have been impossibly high. But no mainstream group has taken up their cause. 

Insiders say that Suu Kyi is "deeply disturbed" by the findings of the UN report, despite her decision to exclude Muslims from her party candidate list in the 2015 elections. In December she approved some modest reform efforts for Rakhine. 

A quiet push in recent weeks has seen more than 250 stateless Muslims in Rakhine gain citizenship, with more applications pending — a move that will almost certainly be opposed by much of the country's majority Buddhist population. 

In January, the government also approved measures to award pensions to Muslims who have worked in the public sector and to compensate Muslim volunteer teachers in community schools in Rakhine state. Funds are also being granted by the central government to renovate about 20 Muslim community schools and there are plans to upgrade other public facilities in Rakhine. 

Rohingya boys repair a fence that separates Myanmar and Bangladesh near the town of Maungdaw, in Myanmar's Rakhine State, February 2016 © Carlos Sardina Galache

However, Suu Kyi's decision on February 9 to expand the scope of a commission investigating problems in Rakhine to encompass the UN's charges is unlikely to satisfy critics. The commission, led by Vice-president Myint Swe, includes no Muslim members, and was discredited after its interim report in January denied nearly all charges of military abuses. 

More efforts to win back the international community and shore up fraying domestic support are in train. Some critics suggest that the government's actions could be too little, too late, but any initiatives that can rein in the powerful military, reform the ossified bureaucracy, boost the fledgling cabinet and keep ethnic groups engaged in peace talks will amount to small triumphs. 

The real challenge for Myanmar is to sustain the momentum of change. Suu Kyi faces myriad issues, from economic reforms to peace efforts with ethnic groups. But it is Rakhine — and related allegations of military abuses, displacement and "ethnic cleansing" — that has the greatest potential to damage her international standing. 

Given the military's power, entrenched in the constitution, and deeply ingrained public opposition among the majority Burman Buddhist population to recognising Rohingya rights, her own future is entwined with the country's successful emergence on the world stage.

A version of this article was first published by the Nikkei Asian Review. Website Subscribe. ©2016 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

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