MAUNG HNA MA, Myanmar, July 20, (Agencies): In the middle of the night on July 4, more than a dozen masked men, dressed head-to-toe in black, surrounded Abdu Sulwon’s home in northwestern Myanmar. His widow says that was the last time she saw him alive.
“I saw a trail of blood where they dragged him away,” said Haleda, 40, showing bruises on her body where she says the men beat her with sticks. Her husband’s body was found in a ravine near their village, Maung Hna Ma, on Saturday.
She gave her account to reporters during a government-organised trip to the troubled north of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where most people belong to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
Officials say Rohingya insurgents are behind this and a slew of killings in the area that has been racked by violence in recent months, with security forces accused of committing atrocities against civilians.
“It is clear that Muslim militants are taking out Muslim villagers who are perceived to be collaborating with the government,” Thaung Tun, national security adviser to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, told diplomats in Yangon.
At least 44 civilians have been killed and 27 have been kidnapped or gone missing in northern Rakhine in the past nine months, Thaung Tun said.
It was not possible to independently verify those figures or establish who was behind any of the killings described to journalists. Insurgents have denied targeting civilians.
But in two cases, including that of Abdu Sulwon, relatives of the victims broadly supported the official version events.
If militants were to blame for at least some of the killings, it would add to evidence the insurgency that flared in October has not been fully rooted out, despite the government announcing the end of its security operation in February.
A group known as Harakah al-Yaqin attacked Myanmar border guard posts on Oct. 9, killing nine policemen and igniting the biggest crisis yet to face Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s fledgling administration.
About 75,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during the ensuing military crackdown, which was beset by allegations of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings by security forces.
Suu Kyi’s government has denied most of the allegations and is refusing access to a United Nations panel of experts, saying its mission will aggravate the situation on the ground in Rakhine.
Rohingya villagers and Myanmar security sources described to Reuters earlier this year how Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), or Faith Movement, began as a small group of leaders who recruited hundreds of young men in the run-up to the October attacks.
HaY says it is fighting for the rights of 1.1 million Rohingya who are denied citizenship and face restrictions on their movement in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Militants have rarely confronted security forces in recent months, but troops checking a report of a militant hideout in Tin May village on July 9 clashed with armed men, killing two and arresting two.
Anthony Davis, a security analyst with Jane’s at IHS-Markit, said the militants appeared to be regrouping.
“The pattern of events we’ve seen this year appears to reflect a strategy of going back to grassroots and working politically in villages,” said Davis.
“It appears they are attempting to eliminate potential intelligence liabilities and to a degree intimidate waverers among the population.”
YANGON, Myanmar: In the old, military-ruled Myanmar, it would not have been a surprising scene: three journalists, bound together in chains, raising shackled hands in unison and speaking out against their repressive government.
But this moment, captured on video by a local news organization, the Democratic Voice of Burma, was not from another era. It was recorded Tuesday, and it underscores how little has changed in the Southeast Asian country since the party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won elections a year and a half ago.
“Just look at these chains. This is what we get for being journalists,” said Lawi Weng, one of three reporters detained by the military on June 26 for covering a drug-burning ceremony organized by an ethnic rebel group in the northeast.
“How can we say this is democracy?” Weng asked before entering a police van headed back to jail after a brief court hearing in Shan state’s Hsipaw township.
The reporters each face three years in prison for violating the nation’s Unlawful Associations Act, which was designed to punish people who associate with or assist “illegal” groups — in this case, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, one of more than a dozen small rebel armies that control patches of territory in the north and east. The rebels burned a cache of narcotics to mark the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse.
Members of various rebel groups, along with their sympathizers and some aid workers, have been prosecuted under the Unlawful Associations Act. But rarely, if ever, have journalists — many of whom travel regularly to zones controlled by the Ta’ang and other insurgent groups.
It’s unclear why these journalists were singled out. Suu Kyi’s government, which is struggling to broker a nationwide cease-fire with the country’s rebel armies, simply says they broke the law and should have informed security forces before visiting a conflict zone.
The arrests, combined with the prosecution of critics who have spoken out against the nation’s military and civilian authorities, have surprised many who thought Suu Kyi’s rise would herald a new era of freedom of expression.
Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during the nation’s long era of military rule, and she was praised worldwide for leading the struggle for democracy. Although her administration is officially in charge, the military still wields most power.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Suu Kyi’s administration continues to use “antiquated laws to threaten and imprison journalists.”
“Reporters are still being targeted for reprisals and imprisoned for their reporting,” Crispin said. “Frankly, that’s not what we thought an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government would condone or promote. It’s been massively disappointing.”
The New York-based press freedom group, which has called for the reporters to be released, had hoped the administration would “prioritize amending or scrapping these draconian provisions,” Crispin said. “To our dismay, they’ve chosen to use them to suppress criticism instead.”