Among all the murky reports to emerge from Rakhine State this week, one thing that is clear: When it comes to the biggest crisis to hit Myanmar since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian led administration was elected, the military is undoubtedly running the show.
Almost two weeks on from three deadly attacks on border police stations in northern Rakhine State, evidence about who was behind the attacks and their underlying motivation are no more certain. Yet that has done nothing to damp the military’s lockdown, nor to staunch the anti-Muslim rhetoric from the President’s Office.
It is a situation that does not bode well for long-term democratic progress in this country.
Following the deadly October 9 attacks on the border guard posts, the military assumed control over Maungdaw and Buthidaung township. Outside observers have been excluded from the region as security forces carry out “clearance operations” which have sparked great fear among the Muslim population there.
An estimated 9000 to 15,000 people from the Rohingya minority are reported by sources on the ground to have fled their homes, with claims that at least 100 civilians have been killed during military operations, although those numbers remain entirely unsubstantiated due to access restrictions. The military has acknowledged that at least 30 alleged attackers have been killed by security personnel in what senior officers described as a necessary use of lethal force.
Allegations that Muslim civilians have faced extra-judicial killings and seen their villages burned by security forces have also gone entirely unmentioned in the missives coming out of the President’s Office, and have been widely ignored by the local media. Yesterday it was reported that two people arrested in relation to the attacks had died in custody, with authorities blaming asthma-related complications.
Meanwhile according to the UN, an estimated 3000 people from the region’s Buddhist population have also fled their homes and being looked after by state authorities.
Reports from the government have focused entirely on support being offered to the ethnic Rakhine villagers. A representative for the Myanmar Red Cross, which is providing assistance in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Sittwe townships, said he had no knowledge of the displaced Muslim population.
Aid organisations have stressed that they are deeply worried about more than 70,000 people in the Muslim-majority northern townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung who are being kept from receiving humanitarian assistance, including vital food rations, because the military refuse to allow agencies access while their operations are ongoing.
Meanwhile those elsewhere in the state are also facing restrictions, humanitarian actors say, as fears among local staff and uncertainty about protocol hampers access and supplies.
These clampdowns are risking the lives of people in already-vulnerable communities, despite the fact that authorities have acknowledged that the only violence to have occurred in recent days had broken out when they entered villages on a clearance operation and allege that they have brought the wider security situation under control.
Indeed the entire “terrorist” narrative is being questioned, not only by international observers, who point to the fact that the attacks were targeted at security officers not civilians, but even by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
“We don’t know the full details. We don’t know when those six months were,” she told the Hindustan Times while visiting India earlier this week, referring to the government’s reports that arrested suspects had said during interrogations that the man organising them had received six month’s training in Pakistan.
“And we are also told he had been receiving funding from various Islamic countries. That is just information from just one source, we can’t take it for granted that it’s absolutely correct,” she said.
But the state counsellor’s attempt to bring some balance to the terror narrativehas been of little avail. The matter has continued to dominate both the national and social media agenda.
Even as updates from the President’s Office make no mention of the perilous situation the Muslim population in northern Rakhine State unquestionably face as security forces search their villages for assailants, those behind the department’s daily updates are less reticent about depicting Muslims as violent, extremist liars.
On a post on the official government website from October 18 entitled “Voices from government employees, local people in Maungdaw over deadly attacks”, which did not cite a single Muslim voice, stories such as the following – purportedly the words of an evacuated school teacher – reinforced the demonisation of the Muslim population.
“I have been here since 2007 as a middle-school teacher and a high-school teacher. The government told us that people here often resorted to violence because they were not educated. Now, they are learning from us and some of them are good at English. However, they posted lies and religious instigation on the internet,” she added. “Later, helicopters from the Tatmadaw evacuated us to a safe place.”
It is concerning, but not unexpected, when military chiefs in Rakhine State start making biologically and mathematically questionable assertions about the Muslim population rapidly increasing because some people practise polygamy.
However when the president of a democratically elected government widely seen to be a proxy for one of the world’s best-known rights campaigners-turned-politician starts churning out such pernicious writings, it is alarming.
The president may wear a civilian gaung baung, but the messages coming from his office show every sign of having been penned by a propagandist wearing a military cap.
In an October 14 statement on events in Rakhine State the previous week, the government noted the following: “According to the findings of the interrogations, the attacks in Maungdaw were intended to promote extremist violent ideology among the majority Muslim population in the area. Using Maungdaw as a foothold, this was an attempt to take over the areas of Maungdaw and Buthidaung. For this, they received significant financial support from extremist individuals in some Middle Eastern countries. This funding was not provided by particular organisations, but was provided secretly through contacts between individuals.”
If a single paragraph were to encapsulate the fears of Rakhine people and the wider population, exacerbated by various provocateurs for various nationalist and political reasons, that paragraph would be it.
And it appears to be working. It is not just social media users who are buying into and promoting the “our military will protect us” message.
National newspapers, many of them staffed by journalists who have bravely questioned the military’s motivations and stood up to oppression in the past, have almost entirely failed to question what is happening to the Muslim population in Rakhine State – the vast majority of whom have shown absolutely no appetite for militant uprising in the past four years.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s protests in India that it is very unclear who and what was behind the October 9 attacks are little more than a whispered acknowledgement of uncertainty contending with the booming onslaught of military-backed propaganda.
The international community is, behind the scenes, horrified by the lack of access and expressing serious concerns about the extent of the rights abuses potentially now being perpetrated against the Muslim population in the north.
Yet, public demands for access have so far failed to highlight these very genuine concerns.
The Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, finally had a formal briefing from the government on October 19, but as yet its only statement was on October 14, deploring the attacks, but making no mention of possible or alleged reprisals.
Meanwhile Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, on October 19 noted a “sober response” by the security forces in northern Rakhine State, an observation that appeared to be made more on trust than fact, given he also stressed concerns that UN staff were not being given access to the area and people concerned.
Whether such trust is misplaced remains to be seen. However even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has this week stressed the insecure state of democracy in Myanmar right now.
“We as a nation are struggling to make the democratic culture take root,” she told reporters after meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on her visit to New Delhi.
“We too have many challenges to face, but we are confident that these challenges can be overcome because our people are determined to overcome them.”
It is to be hoped she is right, but such determination will only succeed if it is rooted in the principles of human rights and respect for others, rather than fear and politically motivated propaganda. For now, in Rakhine State, the latter appears to be winning.