Myanmar police will begin arming and training non-Muslim residents in the troubled north of Rakhine State, where officials say militants from the Rohingya Muslim group pose a growing security threat.
Human rights monitors and a leader of the mostly stateless Rohingya told Reuters the move risked sharpening intercommunal tensions in a region that has just seen its bloodiest month since 2012, when hundreds of people were killed in clashes between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Soldiers have poured into the Maungdaw area along Myanmar's frontier with Bangladesh, responding to coordinated attacks on three border posts on Oct. 9 in which nine police officers were killed.
Security forces have locked down the area — shutting out aid workers and independent observers — and conducted sweeps of villages in Maungdaw, where the vast majority are Rohingyas.
Official reports say five soldiers and 33 alleged insurgents have been killed.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged security forces to exercise restraint and act lawfully, but residents say civilians have been killed, raped and arbitrarily detained and houses razed to the ground. The government has denied abuses by troops.
Ethnic Rakhine political leaders have urged the government to arm local Buddhists against what they say is rising militancy among the Rohingya.
Rakhine State police chief Colonel Sein Lwin told Reuters his force had started recruiting new "regional police" from among the ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslim ethnic minorities living in Maungdaw.
Candidates who did not meet the educational attainment standards, or criteria such as minimum height, required for recruitment by the regular police would be accepted for the scheme, he said.
"But they have to be the residents," said Sein Lwin. "They will have to serve at their own places."
Police Captain Lin Lin Oo said initially 100 recruits aged between 18 and 35 would undergo an accelerated 16-week training program, beginning in the state capital Sittwe on Nov. 7.
"They will be given weapons and other equipment, like police," said Lin Lin Oo, an aide to the commander of the border police in Maungdaw, who will oversee the auxiliary force.
Police and civilian officials said the auxiliary police recruits would not form a new "people's militia," like those that fight ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Myanmar.
Such militias — which are often accused of abuses against civilians — raise their own funds and are overseen by the army.
The new recruits in Rakhine will be paid and come under the control of the border police.
Min Aung, a minister in the Rakhine State parliament and a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said the recruits would help protect residents from the militants, estimated to be 400-strong, responsible for the Oct. 9 attacks.
The government has said the militants, who stole weapons and ammunition in the raids, have links to Islamists overseas.
Only citizens would be eligible to sign up for the police training, Min Aung said, ruling out the 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Rakhine State, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.
"The minority ethnic people need to protect themselves from hostile neighbors," said Min Aung, referring to non-Muslim ethnicities who are in the minority in the region. "That's why the government supports them as regional police, as well as with employment."
Suu Kyi's government has invited diplomats and the senior United Nations representative in the country on a visit to Rakhine to try to assuage concerns over aid access and rights violations.
But international experts working to rebuild relations in Rakhine, and human rights groups, say arming and training local non-Muslims could make the situation on the ground worse.
"It's sad and telling that the authorities regard this move as part of a security solution," said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, a campaign group.
Arming local Buddhists who may regard all Rohingyas a threat to their safety was "a recipe for atrocity crimes," Smith said. "It can only inflame the situation and will likely lead to unnecessary violence."
Kyaw Win, an ethnic Rakhine resident of Kyein Chaung village, in Maungdaw, told Reuters by phone on Wednesday that he was interested in signing up for the training, but said he doubted the plan would allay his community's security fears.
"It is not possible to live together with Muslims because they are invading and seizing our own land day by day," he said.
A Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said he was concerned Muslims might come under attack from the newly armed recruits.
"If they have guns in their hands, we won't be able to work together as before," he said.