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UN chief ‘deeply concerned’ by latest Arakan turmoil

Police guard a convoy carrying INGO and UN staff on 28 August 2017 as they are evacuated from Maungdaw, Arakan State, after attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) last week. (Photo: Reuters)

The United Nations chief has condemned the ongoing bloodshed in northern Arakan State, as civilians continue to be caught up in fighting between Muslim militants and the Burma Army.

Five Daingnet villagers — an ethnic minority group in the region — were killed on Saturday, according to the State Counsellor’s Office Information Committee.

In a statement from his spokesperson on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by reports of civilian casualties since the latest violence flared in the early hours of Friday, when Rohingya Muslim militants launched a coordinated assault on police outposts across three Arakan State townships.

“The Secretary-General, who condemned those attacks, reiterates the importance of addressing the root causes of the violence and the responsibility of the Government of Myanmar to provide security and assistance to those in need,” said Stephane Dujarric, the UN leader’s spokesperson.

The night prior to Friday’s attacks, the Rakhine Advisory Commission — chaired by one of Guterres’ predecessors, Kofi Annan — released its final appraisal of communal tensions in Arakan State, recommending a series of policy proposals aimed at easing the region’s inter-religious divisions. The office of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the report.

Guterres referred to the commission’s findings, saying, “The Secretary-General fully supports the recommendations of the report by Kofi Annan and urges the Government to effectively implement them.”

Both sides of the conflict are again facing allegations of unlawful conduct, including perpetrating human rights violations against civilians. Muslim villagers fleeing to Bangladesh reported being shot at by the Burma Army, and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), the Muslim militant group that has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks, has reportedly also committed atrocities against non-combatants. The government blamed “extremists” — its designated term for ARSA-affiliated elements — for the deaths of the six ethnic Daingnet over the weekend.

Satellite imagery suggests “widespread burnings” destroyed several homes since the latest fighting erupted, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday. Similar evidence, on a smaller scale, was collected by the New York-based human rights watchdog in the wake of the military response launched after the October 2016 attacks against border posts.

Then, as with the latest violence, both parties to the conflict traded accusations that the other was responsible for deliberately setting the fires.

HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called on the government to allow impartial investigators access to the conflict zone.

“The Burmese government should grant access to independent monitors to determine the sources of fires and assess allegations of human rights violations,” he said in an emailed statement.

“This new satellite data should cause concern and prompt action by donors and UN agencies to urge the Burmese government to reveal the extent of ongoing destruction in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”

At least 104 people are believed to have died in the last four days of clashes, including 11 members of the state security forces, an immigration officer and dozens of Muslim militants, according to the State Counsellor’s Office Information Committee.

While international observers fear the government is failing to rein in security forces’ response to the 25 August attacks and their aftermath, domestic factions are calling on Suu Kyi’s administration to ramp up its counter-insurgency efforts.

The Arakan Liberation Party, the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army ethnic armed group, told DVB on Monday that it was essential that the government “crush all the terrorists.”

“For a long time, the security personnel have been threatened. Some were killed. The recent violence has affected national sovereignty,” said Saw Mya Yarzar Lin, an ALP Central Executive Committee member.

“It is alarming for the country. It is vital to crush all the terrorists. All civilians should cooperate with the state in the cause. Being humanitarian to innocent people is [a] different [story than] if some are found guilty; it is very important that we take effective action against them.”

More than 28 political parties also co-signed a statement, released yesterday by the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which echoed the ALP’s sentiments.

The signatories are “concerned that the State Counsellor’s Office hastily welcomed the final report of Kofi Annan’s Rakhine Advisory Commission rather than taking time to assess the report and carry out systematic acts,” their statement read.