Darkness fell on western Myanmar on October 9, when Myanmar police claimed ethnic Rohingyas attacked three security outposts along the border with Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government claimed the attacks left nine of its officers dead and launched a fortnight of bloody reprisals.
Since the alleged skirmish six weeks ago, the international press has estimated that more than 100 Rohingyas have been killed, scores of women sexually assaulted, hundreds detained by the military and more than 150,000 aid-reliant people are without food and medical care.
More than 1,200 buildings are reported to have been razed to the ground and 30,000 people have fled for their lives.
Estimates by the London-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) suggest the situation is even more dire.
In a media release on November 21, the group estimated that from October 9 to October 20, some 428 Rohingya were killed, 192 Rohingya women raped, 440 arrested and 160 suffered beatings and physical violence.
They claim “clearance operations” by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar army is locally known, included the torching of 1,780 houses and buildings and the internal displacement of some 35,000 Rohingyas.
BROUK estimates that 120 Rohingyas remain missing after the military operations.
These figures cannot be independently verified; humanitarian workers and independent journalists have been banned from affected areas.
The government, which is headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, claims that those killed were jihadists — information that was gleaned, it said, through interrogations.
The government has flatly denied allegations of rape by its personnel. It claims that Rohingya terrorists burned down the buildings themselves in an attempt to frame the army for abuse and to claim international assistance.
Counterterrorism operations are still under way in Maungdaw, the northernmost township of Arakan state, also known as Rakhine. The township is populated mostly by Rohingya Muslims, a minority that is denied citizenship and has been described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Elsewhere in the state, as in much of Myanmar, Buddhists are the majority. There are an estimated 1.1 million Rohingyas in Myanmar. They are systematically denied political representation and are demonised in the national media. They are so geographically and economically isolated that tens of thousands have fled on dangerous boat voyages in an attempt to reach Malaysia.
Suu Kyi, whose party secured a landslide win in elections in November 2015, has made few public remarks on the conflict simmering along the country’s western coast. While human rights advocates have criticised her silence, some political analysts say the issue has exposed the limits of her power. The military still controls the key Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence ministries.
The situation since October 9 has been bleak.
It is difficult to envision a positive outcome for the Rohingyas, who have been subjected to what Human Rights Watch has called ethnic cleansing. Some claim the Myanmar government has laid the groundwork for genocide.
There are allegations that some among this marginalised community may have turned to violent extremism. This unknown number of suspected militants, armed with sticks, spears, slingshots and a few hundred stolen firearms, has summoned the force of one of Asia’s most formidable armies against a community of poor and disenfranchised villagers.
This is how the events in Myanmar's Rakhine State unfolded:
October 9- Myanmar police said three border-guard posts were attacked by “hundreds of Islamic militants”, killing nine policemen. Eight assailants were reportedly killed by security personnel immediately following the attacks. Police initially claimed the attackers had links to a group called the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, a militant group that is largely believed to have been defunct for decades. The area was put on military lockdown and declared a counterterrorism “operation zone.”
- Humanitarian aid was completely suspended. Troops were deployed to the areas surrounding Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung towns in the north of the state. An estimated 162,000 people in the area normally receive life-saving assistance from the World Food Programme and other UN agencies.
Within days of the lockdown, more than 800 Arakanese Buddhists arrived in the state capital Sittwe. More than 1,200 Muslims fled their villages and sought shelter in Buthidaung town. State media reported that Buddhists were being evacuated by helicopter citing safety concerns; Buddhists reportedly feared that their villages would be ambushed by mobs of armed Muslims.
- The government said the assailants were members of a jihadist group, Aqa Mul Mujahidin, which authorities claimed was led by a man who was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan and financially supported by foreign terrorist groups. A few days later, while on a trip to India, Suu Kyi told the Hindustan Times: “That is just information from just one source, we can’t take it for granted that it’s absolutely correct.”
- Fiona MacGregor, a Scottish investigative journalist for the Myanmar Times, reported that rights groups had documented dozens of sexual-assault cases allegedly committed by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya women in the operation zone. The following day, Reuters reported the same allegations. The editorial staff of the Myanmar Times, which is the country’s paper of record and its only private English-language daily, was instructed not to report on the situation in Rakhine until further notice.
MacGregor was targeted by the former Information Minister Ye Htut and presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay on social media. Online harassment ensued.
- MacGregor was fired for “damaging the good name of the paper.” She had worked there for more than three years, and wrote a popular column focused on women’s issues. She routinely covered issues such as sexual assault and women’s health, particularly in conflict zones.
Her editor, Douglas Long, was also fired two weeks later for “undermining the mission of the paper” shortly after he spoke about the incident with international media and a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
- State-controlled media began publishing op-eds refuting journalism that contradicted the official narrative — hearkening back to the pre-reform era of censorship and heavy-handed propaganda. These columns claimed that "Islamic militants" had gone too far by attacking security forces and should be purged. State media also accused international media of working “in collusion with terrorist groups” to spread fabricated news.
- A delegation of nine diplomats and one UN official visited parts of Maungdaw for the first time since October 9. The highly chaperoned trip lasted two days, during which they visited four villages selected by the government. While members of the convoy — which included US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel and UN resident coordinator Renata Dessallien — were allowed to speak with some villagers, the visit was tightly controlled.
Authorities detained at least two Rohingya men while they were speaking with members of the delegation. Ambassador Marciel insisted that they be freed immediately. Reports surfaced that some people who had spoken with the delegation were later detained and beaten.
Members of the delegation declined to comment directly on their observations, stressing that theirs was not a fact-finding mission and urging the government to allow access to humanitarian workers, technical experts and journalists. The government has yet to adhere.
- Rakhine State police chief Colonel Sein Lwin said that local police would begin arming and training a civilian security force of non-Muslim residents. The training scheme, which the International Commission of Jurists has referred to as “a recipe for disaster”, was meant to begin on November 7 for about 100 recruits. Reuters reports that the plan is under way in the state capital Sittwe.
- The Myanmar army opened fire with helicopters near villages in Maungdaw. The state-controlled newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported that some 60 assailants armed with “guns, sticks and spears” had attacked soldiers, killing one. The military responded by firing into the fields from two helicopters. The two days of ensuing violence alone displaced an estimated 15,000 people and videos that have reached international aid workers appear to show dead bodies lying in the fields. The government said 69 “violent attackers” were killed and 234 were arrested.
- Myanmar’s state media introduced the True News Information Team of Defence Services, which singled out local and regional media outlets for publishing “fabrications” about casualties and damaged property. At least one local Muslim journalist has since been subjected to extreme online harassment, including death threats.
- Humanitarian access has not been restored in Maungdaw. Following the diplomatic visit in early November, the UN was allowed to deliver limited food assistance to about 7,200 people in four villages. This meagre delivery was only expected to last about two weeks and will expire at a time of year when food scarcity is at its height. Supplies are expected to dwindle this week.
Regular food, cash and nutritional assistance to more than 150,000 people have been suspended since October 9, according to Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar. During this period, more than 3,000 children under 5 have not received treatment for severe acute malnutrition, leaving up to 50% of them in serious risk of dying. Primary health care to about 24,000 people per month has stopped, which Peron says is “very worrying, considering that infant and maternal mortality rates in Maungdaw are historically up to four times the national average.”