Myanmar junta threatens to block food aid for Rohingyas who refuse military training

Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese
Myanmar junta threatens to block food aid for Rohingyas who refuse military training Rohingya people from Thea Chaung and Ohn Taw villages of village-tract in Sittwe township, Rakhine state, May 20, 2023.

Myanmar’s junta is forcibly recruiting Rohingyas in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe and threatening to block monthly international aid supplies if they refuse to join military training, according to members of the ethnic group who are sheltering in camps for the displaced.

Reports of the forced recruitment come amid fresh calls from the international community to monitor the situation facing Rohingyas amid fears that attempts by the embattled military to incite tension between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist communities in Rakhine state is succeeding.

The junta is desperate to recruit new soldiers as its ranks are depleted by battlefield losses and mass surrenders to rebel forces.

Rohingyas, persecuted for decades in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, are getting caught up in the war between the ethnic Arakan Army, or AA, and junta forces in Rakhine state, human rights workers say.

Both sides have pressed Rohingyas into their ranks and at the same time have accused Rohingyas of helping their rivals. Reports suggest that both the AA and junta forces have subjected members of the Muslim minority to violence.

Rohingya residents of Sittwe who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, told RFA Burmese that junta troops on May 27 began ordering them to hand over around 30 people aged 18-30 each from more than 10 camps for the displaced in Sittwe – including Thet Kei Pyin, Ohn Taw Gyi, Bar Sar Ra, Dar Paing, and Thae Chaung.

"We were asked to give 35 people from our camp,” a Rohingya resident of the Thet Kei Pyin camp said Wednesday. “If we refuse to do so, they will not share [international] food supplies anymore. The junta is recruiting for the frontline.”

It was not immediately clear how many Rohingyas have been forcibly recruited from the camps.

Attempts by RFA to contact the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, in Myanmar for a response to reports that the junta has threatened to withhold food aid for Rohingyas in Rakhine state went unanswered Wednesday.

The junta forcibly recruited around 1,000 Rohingyas for military service from camps for the displaced in Sittwe township in March and more than 300 from Rohingya villages last month, Rohingya residents told RFA, making this the third round of forced recruitment.

Now, men sleep outside

A Rohingya from Sittwe, who also declined to be named, said members of his community are no longer willing to sleep in their homes, for fear of being detained in the middle of the night.

"They [the junta troops] often come late at night and if they see young men at home, they will take them immediately,” he said. “It isn’t good for us to sleep at home anymore. Now, men sleep outside – away from their homes and in the fields.”

A goldware shop owned by a Rakhine person in the market of Dar Paing village, where the majority of residents are Muslim, April 28, 2023. [RFA]

Previous military training for Rohingyas was conducted at the junta’s Sittwe-based Regional Command Headquarters for two weeks. After completing the training, the trainees received certificates before some were sent home and others were sent to the frontlines, Rohingyas said.

A resident of Sittwe told RFA that the junta, which is increasingly losing territory to the AA in northern Rakhine state, is recruiting Rohingyas to defend the capital.

"The junta seems to be preparing for a defensive war,” he said. “If they can’t stop [losing territory], the junta will try to hold power by creating racial and religious conflict between the Rakhine and Muslim communities."

The resident said that while the Rohingyas are unwilling to serve in the military, they have no choice. He urged senior Rohingya leaders to prevent the possibility of conflict between the state’s ethnic communities.

RFA attempted to reach junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun and Hla Thein, the junta’s spokesperson for Rakhine state, to inquire about the forced recruitment of Rohingyas, but was unable to contact them.                        

Military analysts say the junta has used Rohingyas who received military training during battles against the AA in Rakhine’s Maungdaw and Rathedaung townships.

In Sittwe and Kyaukphyu townships, which have so far been free of conflict, thousands of Rohingya have received military training, and analysts say they are likely to be deployed on the battlefield if fighting continues.

Call to monitor Rohingya situation

Amid reports of forced recruitment of the Rohingya, and of the military seeking to incite conflict between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities in Rakhine state, international organizations have called for a pause in fighting to allow for aid groups to enter the area and assess the situation on the ground.

Last week, in response to reports of renewed violence and property destruction in Buthidaung township resulting in the displacement of “potentially tens of thousands of civilians, mainly Rohingya,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, urged restraint among all parties in the region.

“With inter-communal tensions between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya high – and being actively stoked by the military – this is a critical period when the risk of yet further atrocity crimes is particularly acute,” Türk said in a May 19 statement.

“While we seek to corroborate information indicating serious violations, I appeal directly to the Myanmar military and Arakan Army to pause the fighting, protect civilians, allow immediate and unhindered humanitarian access, and comply fully and unconditionally with international law,” he said.

Rohingyas from Buthidaung township who fled to the Arakan Army (AA)-controlled area due to the fighting, seen May 8, 2024. [Twan Mrat Naing via X]

According to satellite imagery and images circulating on social media, nearly the entire town of Buthidaung was burned to the ground after the AA attacked the area, prompting the withdrawal of junta troops. Some Rohingyas were reportedly prevented from escaping the fighting and killed by AA soldiers, U.N. officials said at a press conference on May 24.

James Rodehaver, head of the United Nations Human Rights’, or OHCHR, Myanmar team, recently highlighted the spread of misinformation and propaganda exacerbating tensions between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities. He noted that the AA has been disseminating “false information” about the Rohingya on the social media platform X, formerly called Twitter.

Military incitement succeeding

Jason Tower, the country director for the Burma program at the United States Institute of Peace, told RFA that the military's efforts to incite tension between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities is succeeding.

“For quite a few months now, there's been evidence that the Myanmar military has been spreading disinformation about the Arakan Army in the Rohingya community, as part of its efforts to forcibly conscript Rohingya,” he said. 

“There are many Rohingya that have been forcibly conscripted and … this month, when a number of military junta troops surrendered to the AA, there were quite a few Rohingya conscripts amongst them.”

Tower said that the military’s strategy is to “put pressure on the Arakan Army” by stoking tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities.

“And to some extent, it seems like this is working out in the favor of the military junta, as you now do see that the Arakan Army is starting to succumb to some of this pressure," he said.

The Arakan Army (AA) announced that the headquarters of junta’s Battalion 564 based in Buthidaung in Rakhine state was captured on April 5, 2024. [AA Info Desk]

The AA’s reporting on events in northern Rakhine state is “extremely problematic,” Tower said, and “very derogatory towards Rohingya communities.”

“And this is actually worsening the problem, although perhaps the intention of the Arakan Army in putting out this messaging is to appeal to a population of [Rakhine] that have been manipulated by the Myanmar military regime,” he said.

Nonetheless, this in no way absolves the AA of its responsibility to protect civilians and the Rohingya population, Tower said.

“There is a need for the Arakan Army to be held accountable for what's happening here,” he added.

The AA, which in November ended a ceasefire that had been in place since the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat, announced on May 18 that it had captured all military camps in Buthidaung. The AA said it now occupies nine townships in Rakhine state, as well as Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state.

Tower said that while it “seems pretty clear” that the AA will ultimately expel the military from Rakhine state, the real test for the ethnic army is whether it will be able to adequately support displaced communities and begin governing the many territories under its control.

Attempts by RFA to contact the junta and the AA for comment on the situation in Buthidaung and allegations of violence against the Rohingya community went unanswered Wednesday.

Radio Free Asia is a news service affiliated with BenarNews.


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