Rakhine conflict sparks refugee crisis

Anxiety is rising among Rohingya Muslims trapped on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border amid clashes between the Burmese army and Buddhist rebels.

Many Rohingya remain in no-man’s land on the border, unwilling to enter Bangladeshi camps or return home.

Meanwhile, government troops and the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army are fighting nearby. The AA is demanding greater autonomy for the ethnically distinct Buddhist-majority population, independently from the Muslim community’s plight.

“Heavy fighting is going on between the government troops and Arakan Army inside Myanmar,” Rohingya leader Dil Mohammad told the media

“The situation is very tense,” he said, saying that gunfire had created “panic”.

The AA attacked police outposts along the border, killing 13 personnel and capturing others, to mark Myanmar’s independence day on January 4, saying the ethnic Rakhine population is yet to experience liberation from colonial rule.

Government troops have since set up fortifications next to the border fence overlooking tents where displaced Rohingya are living.

An estimated 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, according to Knut Ostby, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar.

“We are worried that if there is new major displacement and new need for major humanitarian assistance that the access we are having will not be sufficient to deliver the assistance needed”, Ostby said. He said the recent violence risked affecting “all ethnic groups”, rather than just the Muslim community.

Rohingya spokesman Nur Alam said gunfire could frequently be heard from the Rakhine side.

“Every night it is close by. The Myanmar border guard have set up 10 new posts near our camp. It’s very intimidating,” he said.

The United Nations said it was “deeply concerned” about the growing conflict.

A ceasefire across many of Myanmar’s border regions has not applied to Rakhine State, according to the AA, which says it has been subjected to repeated government attacks.

The AA said it attacked the security forces in response to a broad military offensive in the north of Rakhine State that had targeted civilians.

Although a ceasefire was in place in northern and eastern Myanmar, Ostby said “it does not include Rakhine State, and that is why we are worried that there will be new escalation that would lead to new suffering of the civilian population”.

The coastal Arakan kingdom – isolated by forests, hills and rivers – was separate from Burma until the 18th century and Rakhine or Arakanese Buddhists are a separate ethnic group from the dominant Bamar.

The conflict with the AA, which is demanding increased autonomy from Nay Pyi Taw, has displaced about 4,500 people since December, according to the UN.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly discussed the insurgent attacks with the generals on Monday and called on the army to “crush the rebels”, according to Reuters.

The Rohingya population is now scattered between Rakhine State and Bangladesh. Picture credit: Wikimedia