While Myanmar’s ruling military is preoccupied elsewhere, leaders of an ethnic Buddhist minority in West Rakhine State are establishing themselves as the state’s effective government and security force and persuading at least some Muslims that they are a better alternative than the junta.
But the development worries other Muslims in the state, the scene of a deadly 2017 rampage by government troops that left thousands dead and pushed more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
For them, a recent series of ethnically motivated incidents – including the murder of a local official – brings back memories of the conflict between the two communities in 2012, when people were killed, houses and religious buildings were burned. and over 30,000 people were driven from their homes.
In recent months, Rakhine has remained relatively peaceful despite rising violence elsewhere in Myanmar, where the army – known as the Tatmadaw – faces popular resistance to its takeover in a coup. from February 1, 2021.
This left an opening for a bid for power by a mainly Buddhist ethnic group known as the Rakhines or Arakans, led by an armed militia known as the Arakan Army which has been fighting the central government since 2009, demanding the self-determination of the Rakhine people. .
Since the middle of last year, the Arakan Army has established itself as an alternative government in Rakhine, inviting the public to submit complaints and settle legal issues, including thefts, burglaries and disputes. land.
“We run a kind of administration in Rakhine. Our judicial system was also built there. We have a tax system in place,” Rakhine Army chief General Twan Mrat Naing said in a Dec. 19 interview published in the Bangladeshi media. Prothomalo Alo.
“It’s not new in Burma,” he added, using another name for Myanmar. “Almost all of the ethnic groups involved in the armed struggle run their own administration in their respective areas.”
Khaing Kaung San, executive director of the Wan Lark Foundation, which works to improve intergroup relations in Rakhine, said the Rakhine army was able to take advantage of a lack of effective government in the province by the junta, composed mainly of the ethnic majority of the Burmese nation.
“Nobody trusts them. So most people rely on AA when something goes wrong. AAs are also able to control different communities to prevent them from escalating if there is a problem between them,” he said.
The Arakan army multiplies its efforts to gain credibility with the inhabitants. In the Prothomalo Alo interview, Twan Mrat Naing, discussing Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines, said that the Arakan Army’s position is “as we are all on one side against the Burmese, we want everyone in Arakan to stay together”.
Most Rakhine are optimistic about the performance of the Rakhine Army in Rakhine State, but some Muslims say they don’t fully trust it and are worried about a power struggle between the Arakan army and the junta.
Village administrators and Muslim village elders were warned by the junta not to deal with the Arakan Army. Residents say the military council often arrests locals for suspected links to insurgent forces and prosecutes them under anti-terrorism laws.
Many Muslims are also concerned about a spate of recent incidents, including the murder of a local government official for which a 14-year-old Muslim boy is being held. Other incidents include allegations of a plot by two Muslims to rape a Rakhine woman and the destruction of Rakhine and Muslim property in November and December.
In November, an Islamic school and a dormitory inside a school were set on fire.
According to official figures, 13 fires broke out in Maungdaw district, which borders Bangladesh and has a large Rohingya population, between January and November 25 last year. Eleven of them were in Muslim villages.
“Rakhine State appears stable. In reality, it’s like a bomb that can explode at any time. There are a lot of unseen problems,” said Phone Pyae Phyo, who chairs the Arakan Student Union. He spoke to VOA of Sittwe Township.
The violence has sparked memories of clashes between the two communities in 2012 after three Muslim men raped a Burmese woman, Thida Htwe, in the town of Kyaukphyu. Violence and vandalism have spread across the state, including the capital, Sittwe.
Leaders of the Arakan Army and its political wing, the United Arakan League, have denounced the recent violence as “an attempt to create fears and anxieties among the population”. In an official statement, the group did not blame the incidents, but promised to investigate and keep residents safe.
A similar note was issued by U Tun Aung Kyaw, a member of the central executive committee of another Rakhine-based group, the Rakhine National Party.
“People on both sides are on high alert not to have sectarian violence like this in 2012. Nobody wants to get in trouble again,” he told VOA. “Now unscrupulous people are using the incidents to try to cause trouble again. Fortunately, the leaders of both communities tried to maintain stability.
Despite recent friction, for many Muslims the biggest threat comes from the Tatmadaw, which carried out the 2017 massacres and still strictly limits their movements.
They say the army has set up checkpoints at township entrances and exits and requires government permits, with several approvals, to travel beyond their townships. Muslims also say they are prohibited from traveling to other states and regions.
“So far we have spent at least 250,000 kyat [$141] to get permission to travel to another township in Rakhine State. We are prevented from visiting other places,” said Maw Lawi Tun, a Muslim resident of the state capital, Sittwe.
Adul Malein, a Muslim living in Buthidaung township, said living conditions for Muslims were deteriorating year by year. Many cannot find work and depend heavily on food aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“AA came to our village and persuaded us to cooperate with them. They told us that if they succeeded and completely controlled the state, we would have a chance and enjoy equal rights,” said Adul Malein.
“Many are still watching the situation, although we don’t fully trust the Arakan Army,” he said, adding that they will go to the side that can create a better situation for them.
“We are afraid on both sides [AA and junta] and follow their orders because we have nowhere to go,” said Adul Malien.