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President Thein Sein announced on Sunday that Burma has abolished the notorious Arakan security force, the NaSaKa, which guards the border with neighbouring Bangladesh and has been implicated in serious human rights violations against the stateless Rohingya minority.
A brief statement on the president’s office website said the Nasaka was disbanded on Friday 12 July, but offered no further explanation. A spokesperson for the Arakan state government told DVB that he only learned about the decision through the media, but added that the NaSaKa’s functions would be absorbed by other departments, including police and immigration.
According to local reports, a Sittwe-based police colonel has been dispatched to northern Arakan state to take charge of the NaSaKa’s primary duties, which are focused on migration control near the Bangladeshi border.
The NaSaKa was established in 1992 by the military junta and tasked with controlling the movements and population growth of the stateless Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the government and denied citizenship. It has been accused of serious rights abuses against the minority, including extortion, forced labour, rapes and killings.
“The NaSaKa was especially formed to control the Rohingya people in Maungdaw and Buthidaung,” explained Sittwe local Aung Win, referring to two Rohingya-majority townships near the border. “The NaSaKa didn’t do anything for the benefit of the country.”
Human rights activists have cautiously welcomed the move, but insisted that it is too early to see whether it will effect genuine change in the volatile state. Both the NaSaKa and police forces were accused of siding with the Buddhist Arakanese during two bouts of clashes with Muslim Rohingya last year.
“If they are all replaced by Rakhine police it could become even worse, because at least [the NaSaKa’s] higher ranks were Burmese,” said Chris Lewa, Director of the Arakan Project, an NGO that lobbies for the rights of the Rohingya. “But the police are mostly, or only, Rakhine.”
News emerged today that local police in Sittwe arrested a prominent Rohingya lawyer and activist. Kyaw Hla Aung, 74, was detained by police around midday on Monday for unknown reasons. It is the second time he has been detained since last year.
Meanwhile, local sources say that Rohingya traders in Maungdaw, who need daily travel permits to cross the border, are still obliged to pay “arbitrary taxes” to the police and immigration officers, who have taken over from the NaSaKa. Aung Win warned that the police were likely to “copy the activities” of the NaSaKa.
“It won’t make a big difference, but if the government continues the democratisation policy for Myanmar (Burma) then I think it will be a bit better for the border people,” said Aung Win.
But some have suggested that the government is planning to replace the NaSaKa with a more potent security force.
“Border security should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Home Affairs,” Dr Aye Maung from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party told DVB. “We assume this could be the motive for disbanding the [NaSaKa]. We suppose there is another [border security] force ready [to assume responsibility].”
Allegations of corruption also run high up the abolished border guard force. In August 2012, a senior commander was sentenced to 40 years in prison for allegedly “taking money from Muslims” to help them carry out attacks on Buddhists in Maungdaw during the first wave of sectarian violence.
Lewa added that there could be a feeling among the government that the NaSaKa was “too soft”. According to a report in Eleven Media on Sunday, the NaSaKa has also been accused of letting “illegal immigrants” into Burma in exchange for bribes.
“The state is organising a better system for border security,” Htoo Hlaing, former deputy head of the NaSaKa, told the news group.
The Burmese government has come under growing international pressure to address the rights of the Rohingya, whose persecution has been cast under the spotlight since last year’s violence. But in May, the government re-affirmed a controversial two-child limit for Rohingya families in a bid to stem their “population growth”.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens, because a lot of things such as marriage permissions used to be issued by the NaSaKa,” said Lewa. “But right now it’s too early to say what’s going to happen.”
Some 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, were displaced in last year’s violence, leaving them trapped in dismal camps or ghettos, without access to proper healthcare, food or sanitation.
-Additional reporting by Shwe Aung and Ye Thu