The Myanmar military has air-dropped hundreds of troops into the country’s strife-torn western Rakhine state in preparation for a surgical operation intended to route out accused Muslim rebels and insurgents, according to military sources. The deployment of the 33rd Light Infantry Division commenced last Thursday. They were helicoptered into the regional capital Sittwe, despite inclement weather, and were deployed to Maungdaw the following day. Since then they have down regular sorties in the area, according to local eyewitnesses.
The Myanmar Army or Tatmadaw has also given verbal orders to villagers in northern Rakhine to avoid entering the Mayu mountain range to the north, as they conduct clearance operations in the region. This is where the military believe there are â€œterroristsâ€ holed up, conducting military training courses. The governmentâ€™s security forces have been carrying out counter insurgency operations around here for months, searching for suspected Muslim militants in the region, according to military sources. Now with the addition of more than 500 troops these operations have been ratcheted up.
Over the weekend, the authorities extended a curfew that was already in place in the township. At the same time State media also reported that the government had imposed new curfews, to be set “in necessary areas” as the army beefs up its “clearance operations”.
According to several Asian intelligence sources some 300 Muslim Rohingya have been undergoing foreign-funded training — using automatic rifles — in the Mayu mountains.
The military operation comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Myanmar government, faced with a barrage of international criticism and demands by the UN to allow a special investigation into the militaryâ€™s conduct in Rakhine â€“ and allegations by Rohingya villagers of systematic rape, murder and arson at the hands of soldiers — during last yearâ€™s security mob up, in response to a series of attacks on police border guard posts, which left nine dead.
More than 70,000 Muslim villagers fled across the border to Bangladesh since then as sporadic violence in the region persists. The government has accused insurgents of murdering and abducting dozens of villagers, who they perceived to be government collaborators.
According to regional intelligence sources, vast amounts of money and arms are being funneled to the Rohingya, largely through Mae Sot on the Thai border with Myanmar.
The violence has escalated further recently, the worse, a week or so ago when six ethnic Mro were killed in Maungdaw. Hundreds of villagers have since fled, amid increasing panic in the area. The Mayu mountain range has been the center of the Tatmadawâ€™s operations over the last few months. In June, the security forces killed three suspected militants during a two-day operation. According to several Asian intelligence sources some 300 Muslim Rohingya have been undergoing foreign-funded training — using automatic rifles — in the Mayu mountains.
The insurgents, known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, were little known until they claimed responsibility for the October raids on the police posts. The group says it is fighting to advance the rights of the Rohingya and has denied killing civilians in statements issued through an unverified Twitter account.
According to regional intelligence sources, vast amounts of money and arms are being funneled to the Rohingya, largely through Mae Sot on the Thai border with Myanmar. The intelligence sources though are unclear whether the weapons â€“ alleged supplies left over from the Cambodian conflict decades ago â€“ are reaching their intended destination.
This a relatively new phenomenon, according to the intelligence sources. Before last Octoberâ€™s attacks, Myanmar intelligence sources believed that at least 200 Rohingya had slipped into neighboring Bangladesh since 2013 for training â€“ in political organization, advocacy and self defense, including the use of arms, funded by Saudi benefactors.
While it is impossible to verify the veracity of these intelligence claims, the increase in violence in Northern Rakhine suggests there is no smoke without fire. At least the Myanmar military are convinced, and are committed to ramp up their counter insurgency efforts there and completely route out the alleged â€œterroristsâ€.
The army commander has made it clear â€“ that this time at least â€“ they are responding to the demands of the local residents. A day before the troop airlift, the commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing met leading Arakan National Party (ANP) politicians in Naypyidaw and assured them that the Tatmadaw would not stand idly by and let the violence go unchallenged. The Arakan politicians asked for security to be beefed up and more troops deployed.
â€œThe army chief said he would fully protect ethnic groups in Rakhine State and that he would take care of the routes that are used to illegally infiltrate [into the country], and make sure the Mayu mountains are not used by militants,â€ according to ANP member Oo Hla Saw, a Lower House MP from the state, who was among the delegation who met Min Aung Hlaing.
Aung San Suu Kyi needs to use some of her prestige and popularity to fight back, starting with embracing credible efforts to investigate military abuses and demand the Tatmadaw permit prosecutions of those found to be involved,
It was a high-powered military delegation, which met the Arakan politicians, including, deputy commander-in-chief of defense services and army commander-in-chief Vice-Senior-General Soe Win as well as chief of general staff (army, navy and air) General Myat Tun Oo, also believed to be head of the militaryâ€™s intelligence operations.
As the army commander dispatched reinforcements to Rakhine, the countryâ€™s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi convened a meeting of the newly formed Rakhine security committee to discuss the situation in Rakhine, which comprised relevant national ministers â€“ including the three ministers from the army, Border Affairs, Defense and Home Affairs — regional ministers and the state counselorâ€™s national security advisor Thaung Tun. There was no mention of the launched military operation in their statement on Face Book, after their meeting concluded.
It would seem that the Commander-in-Chief ordered this major surgical operation, against Rohingya rebels and alleged insurgents in Rakhine, without directly consulting the Lady. This was his constitutional prerogative, as it was regarded as a military matter and does not need civilian approval, according to sources close to Min Aung Hlaing. Since the very first days if NLD government, the two leaders â€“ Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing â€“ have had a clear understanding on how they would work together: Min Aung Hlaing would take the lead in security matters, while the lady was responsible for the rest, said a former senior military officer.
Of course, both understand that the Rakhine issue is beyond being a strictly internal security matter and deeply affects international relations. But the problem is that there is no direct formal channel for consultation between the countryâ€™s two real leaders, other than the National Defense and Security Council, which met six previously â€“ at which the situation in Rakhine was discussed. Although there is no direct channel for two to discuss operational matters, this operation was consistent with their clear understanding and clear terms of engagement, noted a senior retired general.
But according to sources close to the government, Aung San Suu Kyi was indeed aware of the pending operation. Intermediaries informed her, according to military sources: the Vice President, Myint Swe and the defense minister and the interior minister. However, it also does not mean she is happy with this situation. Like the Rohingya villagers, she is concerned to avoid a repeat of the human rights abuses that accompanied the militaryâ€™s previous counter insurgency operation in Rakhine.
This also concerns the UN especially the special rapporteur Yangkee Lee who reported on the earlier situation Rakhine, concluding that it may amount to ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingya. On Friday, she issued a statement raising â€œserious concernsâ€ about the launch of the military operation in Rakhine. But most activists and international human rights organizations are calling on Aung San Suu Kyi to be more resolute. â€œAung San Suu Kyi needs to use some of her prestige and popularity to fight back, starting with embracing credible efforts to investigate military abuses and demand the Tatmadaw permit prosecutions of those found to be involved,â€ Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told South Asian Monitor in an email.