Bangkok, Thailand – In early August, military officials assigned to Rakhine State by Myanmar’s generals summoned leaders from the mainly Muslim Rohingya community in Buthidaung township to a meeting on the banks of the Mayu River.
The officials came with a warning: Rohingya villagers should cut off any ties with the Arakan Army (AA), an armed rebel group fighting for self-determination for ethnic minorities in the country’s northwest.
“Currently we are participating all-together in the AA’s administration … Because the AA is acting with equality and law for all of us,” a village administrator from the Muslim community in Buthidaung told Al Jazeera, adding that the Rohingya have so far ignored the military’s request.
Amid concern that the political crisis triggered by the February 1 military coup could descend into civil war, and as a ceasefire in the restive northwestern state begins to falter, the country’s oppressed Rohingya minority is looking vulnerable once again.
In November last year, there were mass arrests of Rohingya trying to leave Rakhine, new draconian restrictions on their freedom of movement, and intimidation from military officials about the dangers of collaborating with the AA, which mainly represents ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
“Currently our township is stable, but we don’t know when fighting will start so we are always living together in fear,” said a 47-year-old Rohingya resident of Buthidaung, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest.
It has long been illegal for Rohingya to travel outside of the state, with those who breach the rules risking a two-year prison sentence. But the deteriorating situation means more are trying.
In late November, the Myanmar navy seized a boat near the state capital, Sittwe, that was travelling from Maungdaw to Malaysia, arresting the more than 200 Rohingya who were on board, including 33 children.
Earlier that month, 55 Rohingya were arrested after making it as far as Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
The military leadership appears to be introducing harsher punishments, with local media reporting on December 15 that a court sentenced the Rohingya arrested near Sittwe to five years in prison for breaching the law, rather than two.
In 2017, the Myanmar military unleashed a brutal crackdown on Rohingya civilians, sending at least 700,000 fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh amid reports of killings, torture, rape and arson. Most remain there, trying to survive in the world’s largest refugee camp.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then the country’s de facto leader until the coup, ignored appeals from rights groups and the international community to condemn the violence, even defending the military against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government was overthrown in February, concern grew that the situation for the Rohingya could once again deteriorate.
‘We were really afraid’
The AA wants greater political autonomy for the northwestern state.
Relations between Rakhine and Rohingya communities have historically been strained, with frequent outbursts of inter-ethnic violence.
Some Rakhine civilians were implicated in attacks on Rohingya villages in the 2017 crackdowns, and the AA referred to a Rohingya armed group as “savage Bengali Muslim terrorists”, using a common pejorative to imply Rohingya are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.
The AA agreed to an uneasy ceasefire with the military in November 2020, after two years of brutal civil war that left nearly 90,000 displaced and hundreds of civilians dead.
In March last year, the military removed the AA from its ‘“terrorism”‘ list, but the AA has now committed to building an administration that includes the Rohingya, and reports of recent skirmishes have raised questions about how much longer the truce will hold.
Another administrator, in Kyauktaw township, said armed military authorities summoned administrators from six Rohingya villages in September.
He said the officials did not explicitly threaten them or outline any consequences if they worked with the AA, but the fact they were armed meant the experience was intimidating.
“And then, they said ‘don’t work with the AA to solve any problems.’ We were really afraid of them at the time because they have weapons. We couldn’t tell them much. And they said again and again not to work with AA,” he recalled.
Like the administrator in Buthidaung, he said the AA has been helping the Rohingya and treating them fairly. But he also noted that with the military distracted by a nationwide uprising against their rule, the AA had been able to quietly consolidate territory and expand administrative control over Rakhine.
While mainly urban areas remain under military control, most rural areas are under the AA’s administration, and the armed group also has partial influence over Sittwe. Recent fighting has been focused in Maungdaw, near the border.
“Currently junta council members are afraid to come to our village district,” the administrator said because it was under AA control.
AA spokesman Khaing Thu Kha said he was aware of the military’s attempts at intimidation, accusing the military of trying to control the population via “oppressive mechanisms”.
“Not only the Muslims but also all people in Rakhine state are still being threatened by the Myanmar military every day. As much as we can, we are trying to provide security, justice and harmony for all the people in Rakhine state,” he told Al Jazeera.
Since the coup, ethnic Rakhine people have also been subjected to increased travel checkpoints and some have been arrested or questioned on suspicion of supporting anti-military resistance groups.
After the 2017 crackdown, some 600,000 Rohingya remained in Rakhine, more than 100,000 of whom were confined to displacement camps which have been called open-air prisons. Human Rights Watch has described the camps as “squalid and abusive” with “severe limitations” on movement, education and healthcare.
Amnesty International has described the treatment of Rohingya in Rakhine as tantamount to apartheid and the harsh restrictions continued even under Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won the 2015 elections.
Recently, however, they have become even more onerous.
While Rohingya could usually travel with permission from their village administrator, sometimes also a Rohingya, the 47-year-old resident of Buthidaung township confirmed to Al Jazeera that as of late November, Rohingya are required to get permission from local military officials in order to travel to neighbouring Maungdaw township.
The military claims that Rohingya travelling poses a danger to security and rule of law.
But the administrator says the Rohingya are being forced to pay 10,000 Myanmar kyat (about $5.65) to travel to Maungdaw, a prohibitively expensive sum for people living on the knife-edge of poverty and a challenge for anybody with business interests outside of the township or health conditions that require travel to more well-equipped hospitals.
“If we have to go to Sittwe for our health problems, there will be many restrictions and it will take a lot of time. First, we have to go to the Buthidaung immigration office and then we have to go to the district immigration office in Maungdaw. If the district office refuses us, we can’t go,” he said, adding that it can take as long as a month to get approval.
He says Rohingya are not yet being openly threatened on the streets, but the situation feels unstable and many are “afraid to travel” or go outside for normal daily activities.
Human rights group Fortify Rights also confirmed that the military has been controlling the movement of Rohingya more strictly, condemning the measures as a violation of the ICJ’s provisional orders for Myanmar to take steps to protect the Rohingya from genocide.
Fortify Rights argues that by preventing Rohingya from accessing jobs and healthcare, the military generals may be “deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of a group”, a form of genocide.
For Aung Kyaw Moe, a US-based Rohingya activist, the restrictions are a “gross human rights violation”.
Aung Kyaw Moe serves as an adviser to the human rights ministry of the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel administration established by legislators elected in the 2020 polls and removed from office by the military’s power grab.
While many senior NUG members hail from the NLD, the group has committed to reforms that the NLD previously refused to consider, saying it will recognise Rohingya citizenship and cooperate with international justice mechanisms.
But despite the NUG and AA’s official stance, the situation in Rakhine remains complicated, with many still not embracing the Rohingya.
Rakhine political analyst Kyaw Lynn says many ethnic Rakhine remain sceptical about the politicians’ motives.
“For the NUG, it seems they traded Rakhine people’s support for the Rohingya declaration. Or they think it is better to have international recognition than Rakhine recognition,” he said.