YANGON (Reuters) - When the former U.N. chief Kofi Annan wrapped up his year-long probe into Myanmar’s troubled northwest on August 24, he publicly warned that an excessive army response to violence would only make a simmering conflict between Rohingya insurgents and Myanmar security forces worse.
Just three hours later, shortly after 8 p.m., Rohingya insurgent leader Ata Ullah sent a message to his supporters urging them to head to the foot of the remote Mayu mountain range with metal objects to use as weapons.
A little after midnight, 600 km northwest of the country’s largest city Yangon, a rag-tag army of Rohingya militants, wielding knives, sticks, small weapons and crude bombs, attacked 30 police posts and an army base.
“If 200 or 300 people come out, 50 will die. God willing, the remaining 150 can kill them with knives,” said Ata Ullah in a separate voice message to his supporters. It was circulated around the time of the offensive on mobile messaging apps and a recording was subsequently reviewed by Reuters.
A police officer guards near house which was burnt down during the last days violence in Maungdaw, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar August 30, 2017. RETUERS/Soe Zeya Tun
The assault by Ata Ullah’s group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), was its biggest yet. Last October, when the group first surfaced, it attacked just three police border posts using about 400 fighters, according to Myanmar government estimates. The Myanmar army is now estimating up to 6,500 people took part in the August offensive.
Its ability to mount a much more ambitious assault indicates that many young Rohingya men have been galvanized into supporting ARSA following the army crackdown after the October attacks, according to interviews with more than a dozen Rohingya and Rakhine villagers, members of the security forces and local administrators. The brutal October response led to allegations that troops burned down villages and killed and raped civilians.
The crisis in ethnically-riven Rakhine state is the biggest to face Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and her handling of it has been a source of disillusionment among the democracy champion’s former supporters in the West. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to Myanmar authorities on Tuesday to end violence against Rohingya Muslims, warning of the risk of ethnic cleansing, a possible humanitarian catastrophe, and regional destabilisation.
Rohingya leaders and some policy analysts say Suu Kyi’s failure to tackle the grievances of the Muslim minority, who have lived under apartheid-like conditions for generations, has bolstered support for the militants.
The fledgling militia has been transformed into a network of cells in dozens of villages, capable of staging a widespread offensive.
Myanmar’s government has declared ARSA a terrorist organisation. It has also accused it of killing Muslim civilians to prevent them from cooperating with the authorities, and of torching Rohingya villages, allegations the group denies.
The latest assault has provoked a major counteroffensive in which the military says it killed almost 400 insurgents and in which 13 members of the security forces have died.
Rohingya villagers and human rights groups say the military has also attacked villages indiscriminately and torched homes. Myanmar government says it is carrying out a lawful counter-terrorism operation and that the troops have been instructed not to harm civilians.
Nearly 150,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, leading to fears of a humanitarian crisis. Some 26,750 non-Muslim villagers have also been displaced inside Myanmar.
Suu Kyi has said she would adopt recommendations of Kofi Annan’s panel that encouraged more integration. She has also previously appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities.
In a statement on Wednesday, she blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” on the strife in Rakhine. She made no mention of the Rohingya who have fled.
Suu Kyi’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, could not be immediately reached for comment.
On Monday, however, he told Reuters Myanmar was carrying out a counterterrorism operation and taking care of “the safety of civilians, including Muslims and non-Muslims.”
“NOT HOW HUMANS LIVE”
In an interview with Reuters in March, Ata Ullah linked the creation of the group to communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012, when nearly 200 people were killed and 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.
“We can’t turn the lights on at night. We can’t move from one place to another during the day,” he told Reuters in previously unpublished remarks, referring to restrictions placed on the Rohingya population’s behaviour and movements.
“Everywhere checkpoints: every entry and every exit. That’s not how humans live.”
A Rohingya community leader who has stayed in northern Rakhine said that, while the rest of Myanmar enjoyed new freedoms under Suu Kyi after decades of military rule, the Muslim minority have been increasingly marginalized.
Support for the insurgents grew after the military operation last year, he said.
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