Tuesday, 26 May 2020

On April 8, the Burma Army Commander in Chief’s website announced that security forces had found a temporary “ARSA terrorist camp” in northern Maungdaw, consisting of two tents, containing a few rounds of bullets, a walkie-talkie, a camouflage uniform, rice and oil with WFP logos, and an Islamic prayer book -Holy Quran.

The camp was allegedly discovered west of Khaumaungseik, in the northernmost part of Maungdaw, where the government has periodically reported on ARSA activity in recent years.

To Rohingya familiar with this locality, neither the discovery of the camp, nor past reports of ARSA movement there, are plausible – as since August 2017, the entire Khamaungseik valley has been under a strict security lockdown, with all former Rohingya villages now completely abandoned.

Once populated by thousands of Rohingya, Khaumaungseik tract now houses only a few hundred non-Rohingya families, including Mro, Dainet, Khumi, Kathe (Manipuri) and Rakhine, some of whom were resettled from Bangladesh to populate a “Natala” Buddhist model village set up in 1991.

Khamaungseik also houses a police station, Border Guard Police (BGP) camp and Burma Army camp, where over a hundred troops are stationed, who regularly scour the surrounding area – raising questions as to why ARSA would have chosen to set up a camp “about 2,500 meters to the west of Khamaungseik Village,” as claimed by the Burma Army, in a deserted plain, with not a single Rohingya household to hide amongst.

The Burma Army report showed no photos of the camp, nor its surroundings, only items allegedly seized from the camp. The exact date of the camp’s discovery was not given.

The report came only a week after the government media reported a fresh attack by ARSA in the same area, on a group of Dainet villagers who had gone bird-hunting northwest of Khamaungseik.

According to the report, “ARSA members” set off an explosive, killing two men, then fired small arms injuring three others. It was not explained how the Dainet villagers identified their assailants, nor how – or indeed why -- this brazen attack on civilians was committed amidst the ongoing tight security.

Irrespective of plausibility, the timing of these reports is key.

For the announcement of the finding of the ARSA camp coincided exactly with directives issued by the Myanmar President’s Office on compliance with the Genocide Convention, and preservation of evidence in northern Rakhine State – in accordance with the ICJ’s provisional measures.

The Burma Army made the link clear in their April 8 report, saying: “Tips have been received that ARSA terrorists are infiltrating into Myanmar-Bangladesh border areas to commit acts of sabotage and to provoke clashes as the time for Myanmar to submit a report over issues between Myanmar and the Gambia in May, 2020 is looming.”

Evidently, the narrative of the “Islamic terrorist threat,” which the Burmese government has used as the original justification for its deadly August 2017 operations, needs to be kept alive and well.

It is urgently needed for this narrative to be held up to closer scrutiny, particularly as the Burmese government is now also tarring the Arakan Army (AA) with the same terrorist brush, to justify its ongoing carnage against civilians in western Burma.

The Burma Army’s April 8 announcement lumped ARSA and AA together as terrorists, insinuating that international aid was being diverted to both groups, and clearly seeking to justify its restrictions on humanitarian access in northern Rakhine.

Also on April 8, The New Light of Myanmar published an article “AA attacks civilian vehicle in Maungtaw Tsp,” alleging that “4 armed AA members” detonated a mine and opened fire on an empty pick-up truck travelling on the main road near the BGP headquarters at Kyikanpyin around 8 pm on April 5.

Local sources are highly sceptical of this report, as no civilian vehicles dare drive at night due to the strict military curfew. It also makes no sense that AA would bother to attack an empty civilian vehicle so close to the heavily guarded and fortified BGP headquarters.

While the government’s blocking of the internet and muzzling of the media make it increasingly difficult to question such reports, now more than ever – with the growing numbers of displaced in and outside Burma at increased risk from the deadly coronavirus -- local and international journalists and analysts must scrutinize the plausibility of the official narrative.