The night after a series of coordinated attacks by Rohingya insurgents in northern Rakhine State, frightened residents of one area found themselves trapped by attackers’ land mines, and those evacuated from another area gathered in a nearby town patrolled by the army and police.
Authorities said police posts came under attack in the early hours Friday by an estimated 150 insurgents armed with guns and homemade explosives. The attackers were believed to be Muslim, a minority in Rakhine State, where a religious divide centers on the stateless Rohingya, who are disdained by many Buddhists and seen as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The attacks resulted in at least 71 deaths, with Burmese officials saying 59 of them were insurgents and the rest security personnel.
Members of the local Buddhist community, who are a minority in the Maungdaw area, spent a fearful night after officials warned them that attackers had mined roads in the rugged coastal area.
“We don’t want people to get hurt,” Maung Ohn, the Maungdaw representative in the Rakhine State legislature, told VOA Burmese. “Now they are trapped inside the town.”
One Maungdaw resident, a provincial government employee, told VOA that although Buddhist Rakhines fear for their safety, “there is no way out of here. We heard about land mines and roadside bombs planted along main roads. Not even one vehicle dares to drive to Buthee Taung, two hours away. We can’t go until the mines are cleared.”
Some areas of Buthee Taung remain outside official control, said Tun Aung Thein, who represents the town in the legislature. “There are places in a Buthee Taung suburb where security forces cannot reach, and people from there have moved into the town proper. That’s where about 100 people from three villages, Thabeit Taung, Kin Chaung and Thabawh Chaung, have taken refuge, too.
“We’ve got the army and police patrolling the downtown area because everyone’s worried … because the attacks last night were around 1:30 in the morning. Nobody dares to sleep. They are frightened,” Tun Aung Thein said.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for the assaults, and warned of more.
ARSA, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement,” emerged last October claiming to lead an insurgency based in the remote May Yu mountain range bordering Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said on his Facebook page late Friday that the attacks were planned to coincide with the release of a report by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and to gain attention during the General Assembly next month.
After the attacks, government forces evacuated several dozen government staffers and their families, as well as some 400 villagers from near the Nanthataung Philanthropic School, according to the State Counsellor Office Information Committee in Rangoon.
Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, condemned the attacks.
“It is clear that today’s attacks are a calculated attempt to undermine the efforts of those seeking to build peace and harmony in Rakhine State. We must not allow our work to be derailed by the violent actions of extremists,” she said.
The violence follows the release of a report by the Annan commission on the conditions in Rakhine State.
Urging action to heal divides
The report urged the government to take immediate action to heal the divides and to abolish the restrictions of movement and citizenship imposed on 1 million Rohingya in Rakhine.
After meeting with Annan on Thursday, General Min Aung Hlaing expressed displeasure with the findings, saying Annan and others had failed to understand what was happening on the ground in Rakhine.
Annan commission member Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim and interfaith leader, told VOA Burmese on Friday that the army and police need to mount a security operation in the area to prevent further attacks.
“I think the best way to resolve this conflict is to implement our recommendation as soon as possible,” Lwin said. “As militant attacks escalate in Rakhine State, we need to tackle the situation from all angles. Any clearance or security operation must be handled systematically but wisely and delicately if this is to be contained.”
The U.N. condemned Friday's attacks and said they confirm "the significance of the government's commitment to implement" the Annan commission recommendations.
Amnesty International said the attacks marked a dangerous escalation of violence in the area.
"We urge all sides to show the utmost restraint and ensure that ordinary people are protected from human rights violations and abuses," the rights group said.
The area of Rakhine closest to Bangladesh has been in lockdown since October 2016, when years of friction between the Rohingya and Myanmar's Buddhist majority exploded with a military crackdown in response to attacks on border police stations that left nine police officers dead. During the crackdown, thousands of Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, complaining of systematic killings, arson and rapes by Myanmar military forces.
The U.N. said the security forces' clearances have amounted to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
The army and the Myanmar’s civilian government deny allegations of widespread abuses, including rapes and murders.