Authorities in Myanmar say security forces have begun arming and training non-Muslim residents in the north of Arakan (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 Arakan (Rakhine).
Colonel Sein Lwin, Arakan (Rakhine) police chief, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday that his force had started recruiting new “regional police” from among Buddhist 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 Arakan (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 Arakan (Rakhine), who are denied citizenship by the government.
Police will also start recruiting civilians in Akyab (Sittwe), Arakan (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 Akyab (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 Arakan (Rakhine) will be paid and come under the control of the border police.
State Sponsored Violence
Human rights organisations and a leader of the Rohingya told Reuters that the move risked sharpening tensions in a region that has just seen its deadliest month since 2012, when hundreds of people were killed in clashes by Rakhine Buddhists on Rohingya Muslims.
Soldiers have poured into the northern region along Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh following 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.
Rakhine political leaders have urged the government to arm local Buddhists against what they say is rising security threats from Rohingya fighters whose existence are still an illusion.
“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.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has invited diplomats and the senior United Nations representative in the country on a visit to Arakan (Rakhine) from Wednesday to try to assuage concerns over aid access and rights violations.
But international experts working to rebuild relations in Arakan (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 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.”
A Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said he was concerned 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.
Note: Changes have been made, Agencies are not responsible for these.