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Tensions were high in northern Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township on Monday as security forces moved into the area near Burma’s border with Bangladesh a day after a series of attacks that left nine police officers dead, one missing and five wounded.
At least eight of the attackers were also killed in the assault, while two others were captured alive.
The authorities estimated that well over a hundred people were involved in the attacks, which took place between 1am and 5:45am on Monday at three separate locations in Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, it is believed that the assailants were ethnic Rohingya, a minority group regarded by many in Burma as interlopers from Bangladesh.
At a press conference on Sunday, Maj-Gen Zaw Win, the chief of Burma’s police force, said that “the attackers chanted the word ‘Rohingya’ as they raided the base and spoke what appeared to be Bengali.”
The motive for the attacks was unclear, but it appears that the assailants were mostly after weapons. State media reported that 62 assorted arms and 10,130 rounds of ammunition were seized in the raids.
Zaw Win also cited a possible drug connection, noting the attacks came just weeks after local police seized around 6 million methamphetamine tablets.
Local residents in Maungdaw said they feared this latest incident could reignite another round of deadly communal clashes between the Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese like the ones that have occurred intermittently since an outbreak of mob violence in 2012.
“The attacks on border police has raised concerns among the teachers,” said local teacher Ei Chaw Khing, in response to a decision to close schools in the wake of yesterday’s attacks. “We don’t feel safe teaching at schools here and we are scared there could be another incident like the one back in 2012.”
Under a curfew imposed in Maungdaw District, residents are required to stay indoors from 7pm to 6am. Gatherings of more than five people are also prohibited.
“With the martial law in place, people are only going out in the morning. Security forces are patrolling the streets in the evenings. This is causing livelihood inconveniences for us,” Zaw Min Tun, a resident of Maungdaw town, told DVB on Monday.
According Ye Htut, an administrator for Maungdaw, the situation there is currently under control.
“All of the security forces are deployed in Maungdaw, so we are not worried about security. Everything is fine,” Ye Htut was quoted by Reuters as saying.
He noted, however, that Muslim residents of Maungdaw town have closed their shops amid the heightened security presence. He also added that he wasn’t aware of the situation around Kyiganbyin village, the site of one of the attacks, as it is currently under the control of security forces.
While the tighter security has reassured some, it also raises fears of renewed human rights violations in a region were they are rife.
“Certain Myanmar [Burmese] authorities would like foreign governments and their own people to believe the Rohingya pose an existential threat to the country. The reality is that the biggest threat to human rights in the country comes from state security forces,” said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, which has documented widespread human rights abuses in Arakan State.
“If the government wants to prevent the rise of violent extremism it should promote and protect human rights, not violate them further,” he added in an email to DVB.
The incident could also prove to be a major political headache for the ruling National League for Democracy, which formed a commission in late August to address the deep-seated tensions in Arakan State.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Pe Myint, the new government’s information minister, said that “one of the reasons to hold the press conference was to prevent such conflict based on rumours by releasing correct news as soon as possible.”
The army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which held power until earlier this year, also responded to the attacks in a statement released on Sunday.
In it, the party condemned the attacks, which it said appeared to be well-planned and carefully coordinated.
It urged the government to immediately investigate the case and said that it would be carefully monitoring the situation as a matter of national security.