Renewed tension and violence between Myanmar’s Rohingya and Rakhine people sound alarm of a start of a new conflict.
Authorities in Myanmar say security forces have begun arming and training non-Muslim residents in the north of Rakhine state to counter an allegedly growing threat from fighters belonging to the ethnic Rohingya minority group.
Human rights advocates say the move could lead to more conflict and abuses against civilians in Rakhine.
Colonel Sein Lwin, Rakhine police chief, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday that his force had started recruiting new “regional police” from among Buddhist Rakhine and other non-Muslim ethnic minorities in the border town of Maungdaw.
Candidates who did not meet the educational attainment standards, or criteria such as minimum height required for recruitment by the regular police would be accepted for the scheme, he said.
“But they have to be the residents,” said Sein Lwin. “They will have to serve at their own places.”
Min Aung, a minister in Rakhine parliament and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, said only citizens would be eligible to sign up for the police training, ruling out the 1.1 million Rohingya living in Rakhine, who are denied citizenship by the government.
Police will also start recruiting civilians in Sittwe, Rakhine state’s capital, next week.
Lin Lin Oo, a police official, said that initially 100 recruits aged between 18 and 35 would undergo an accelerated 16-week training programme in Sittwe on November 7.
Authorities said the auxiliary recruits would not form a new “people’s militia”, like those that fight in ethnic conflicts elsewhere in Myanmar.
Such militias – which are often accused of abuses against civilians – raise their own funds and are overseen by the army. The new recruits in Rakhine will be paid and come under the control of the border police.
Human rights organisations and a leader of the stateless Rohingya told Reuters that the move risked sharpening intercommunal tensions in a region that has just seen its deadliest month since 2012, when hundreds of people were killed in clashes between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
Soldiers have poured into the northern region along Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh after attacks on three border posts on October 9 in which nine police officers were killed.
Security forces have locked down the area – shutting out aid workers and independent observers – and conducted sweeps of villages in Maungdaw, where the vast majority are Rohingya.
Official reports say five soldiers and 33 alleged fighters have been killed.
The UN has called for an investigation into allegations that security forces have killed, raped and arbitrarily detained thousands of Rohingya civilians and razed their homes to the ground in a crackdown following the October 9 attacks.
The government has denied abuses by troops.
The military has also recently forced hundreds of Rohingya to flee their houses.
Ethnic Rakhine political leaders have urged the government to arm local Buddhists against what they say are rising security threats from Rohingya fighters.
“The minority ethnic people need to protect themselves from hostile neighbours,” said Min Aung, referring to non-Muslim ethnicities who are in a minority in the region.
“That’s why the government supports them as regional police, as well as with employment.”
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Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has invited diplomats and the senior United Nations representative in the country on a visit to Rakhine from Wednesday to try to assuage concerns over aid access and rights violations.
But international experts working to rebuild relations in Rakhine, and human rights groups, say arming and training local non-Muslims could make the situation on the ground worse.
“It’s sad and telling that the authorities regard this move as part of a security solution,” said Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group.
Arming local Buddhists who may regard all Rohingya as a threat to their safety was “a recipe for atrocity crimes”, Smith said.
“It can only inflame the situation and will likely lead to unnecessary violence.”
Kyaw Win, an ethnic Rakhine resident of Kyein Chaung village, in Maungdaw, told Reuters on Wednesday that he was interested in signing up for the training, but said he doubted the plan would allay his community’s security fears.
“It is not possible to live together with Muslims because they are invading and seizing our own land day by day,” he said.
A Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said he was concerned that Muslims might come under attack from the newly armed recruits.
“If they have guns in their hands, we won’t be able to work together as before,” he said.