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In the early hours of Friday morning last week, Rohingya militants numbering over 100 staged a coordinated attack on more than 30 Burmese police outposts in the north of Rakhine State. This resulted in the deaths of over 100 people, including 12 members of the security services.
This is a significant development, as it is the largest military escalation since a similar attack by Rohingya militants in October 2016. The Burmese Army’s response to that attack included the rape and killing of civilians, the burning of Rohingya villages, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people, and led to a UN investigation into the incident and its aftermath.
The Army’s response this time appears no different. Already there are widespread reports of indiscriminate, collective punishment of the civilian Rohingya population. Horrendous reports of 100s of deaths and rapes are compounded by video footage on social media showing the burning of whole Rohingya villages. The government’s Facebook page also reports the deaths of many Buddhist civilians targeted by the extremist groups. The last 6 days of violence have forced the evacuation of thousands of Burmese Muslims and Buddhists and more than 18,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed into neighbouring Bangladesh, crossing rivers and carrying what possessions they can.
There is difficulty in collecting and verifying evidence of the atrocities, as the world is having to rely on social media for information. The government’s denial of access for journalists and UN fact-finders to the affected areas has created a media vacuum, capitalised upon by the Burmese government. The government’s media has filled the vacuum by claiming that the army is conducting ‘clearance operations’, and that the Rohingya themselves are burning their own villages.
The reality of the ‘clearance operations’ has led to many calls for international action. The Rakhine Commission, established to investigate the October violence and comprising of ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has called on the Burmese army to exercise restraint in its reaction to this week’s attacks. Similarly, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation has called for the creation of UN safe spaces within Burma for Rohingya refugees, and the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK has called for the UN Security Council to act.
The latter, at least, is being acted upon. Yesterday, the UK called for a meeting of the Security Council to discuss the ongoing violence in Rakhine State. The initiative by the UK government is a welcome improvement on its previous failure to properly highlight the plight of the Rohingya on state visits.