Kyaw Hla Aung’s voice trembles as he speaks.
“The situation is really bad here,” he says, sitting in a bamboo hut inside an internment camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state.
The 77-year-old Rohingya Muslim community leader, a former lawyer, was jailed numerous times for political activities under Myanmar’s former military governments. He is used to scrutiny. But, this time, he says it is different.
“The military came and they are warning everybody not to keep any strangers,” he says.
Rohingya in the camps, where tens of thousands have been confined since communal violence in 2012, have stopped gathering in groups to avoid attracting suspicion. In at least one village they were ordered by the army to demolish fences surrounding their homes.
There is good reason to be afraid. A few dozen miles north, in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, a conflict is raging between the military and the Rohingya population. A series of deadly attacks on security forces by a group apparently supported by members of the diaspora has raised the spectre of a new insurgency. It has also prompted a severe crackdown.
The army has framed the fighting, which broke out on 9 October after nine police and five soldiers were killed at three border posts, as an “invasion” and announced plans to train and arm Buddhist civilians to protect their villages.
Ensuing security sweeps have killed dozens of alleged attackers. Last weekend, more than 30 died after soldiers fired from helicopters on a mob of men they say were armed with guns, knives and spears.
But human rights groups say scores of Rohingya civilians may be among the casualties. Images and video circulated on social media appear to show the bodies of men, women and children with gunshot wounds, while satellite images published by Human Rights Watch show villages razed to the ground. Rohingya women in several areas have accused soldiers of rape.
The army denies this. The authorities consider Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many trace their heritage in Myanmar for generations. State media says they fabricated the rape allegations and burned down their own homes. And because the area is off-limits to foreign journalists, it has been very difficult to verify the competing claims.
Rohingya in Sittwe say they know nothing about any militant group. Many believe the episode is a creation of the army, which still wields tremendous power despite a handover to civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this year. But some warn that oppression of the minority is heading towards breaking point.
A recent report by Physicians for Human Rights documented how restrictions on movement, land confiscation, pervasive surveillance and extortion in northern Rakhine since the 2012 clashes had left some 120,000 displaced.
“Now, it’s been four years with people in these conditions and suffering; many young people spending their teenage, adult years with nothing to do,” says Kyaw Hla Aung.
Asked whether he thinks there is an insurgency, he says: “No, no, but they are suffering and suffering and suffering, so they cannot bear, so it will blow up.”
In a statement published a few days after October’s attacks, the government blamed a previously unknown armed group of “extremists”, Aqa-Mul-Mujahidin, whose leader, named as Haviz Tohar, allegedly trained with the Pakistani Taliban. Aung San Suu Kyi later appeared to walk back on some of those claims, saying they were based on information that may not be credible.
Meanwhile, videos posted online by a group calling itself the Faith Movement show a contingent of young men, and some boys, armed with swords and some guns, claiming to be Rohingya freedom fighters.
According to analysts from the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (Trac), at least seven videos were posted between 10 and 27 October. None mention Aqa-Mul-Mujahidin or Haviz Tohar. Instead, some introduce a “chief” named as Abu Ammar Junooni, a bearded man sitting in the centre of a small band of men.
“Each video calls for an armed struggle,” says Veryan Khan, editorial director at Trac, while three “specifically call for a jihad”.
Some of the clips give a list of demands, including the restoration of Rohingya ethnic rights, and stress their “self-defence” is focused on the military. An English-language “press statement” says the group is “free from all elements of terror but seeks fundamental rights for all Arakanese [people of Rakhine state]”.
Tin Maung Shwe, a senior Rakhine state official, says security had been boosted across the country. “This is a murder case,” he says. “We will take action against everyone who committed this. If they are living in Myanmar, they have to follow Myanmar’s constitution, whatever their race is.”
Militancy in Rakhine state is not a recent phenomenon. Muslim movements demanding an autonomous region in northern Rakhine cropped up throughout the latter half of the 20th century. These included the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO), thought to have been defunct since the 2000s.
A transcript of an audio recording obtained by a source familiar with the Rohingya diaspora and shared with the Hlcarpenter.com features a man saying the people involved are “not only RSO”.
The man, believed to be an ethnic Rohingya living abroad, describes the 9 October attacks as a “big success”.
“These are our people and the system of the people is working well,” he says, stressing that “help” can be sent through an underground network of individuals.
“They [Myanmar military] looked down on us, ignored us and kept silence by saying that our kalars [a derogatory term for Muslims] do not have anything. Insha Allah, we succeeded.”
Speaking a few days after the release of the government statement, Ehsan Ullah Batth, Pakistan’s ambassador to Myanmar, said he had received no “actionable information” about Pakistani involvement.
Of an alleged accomplice the government named Kalis, purportedly Pakistani, he said: “I don’t find any such name in Pakistan.”
While connections to international organisations may be uncovered, the demands of the videos are locally focused: liberation of Rohingya from the camps, restoration of citizenship and property.
Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based political analyst, says: “I think what is important to stress is that so far the modus operandi of the attackers has been similar to the old RSO and other insurgent groups, not terrorism – that is, attacks have been on security targets, not civilians or religious sites.”
Matthew Smith, founder and chief executive of non-profit Fortify Rights, agrees. “The militants don’t appear to be well-organised or well-armed, and they’re tiny compared to dozens of other armed groups or militias in the country,” he says.
“If this [Rohingya militancy] is a strategy to negotiate with the army, and to have a seat at the table alongside other ethnic armies in the peace process, it’s profoundly ill-conceived.
“We fear the military will unleash an unprecedented wrath on northern Rakhine state, and that won’t bode well for Rohingya rights.”
In the displacement camp outside Sittwe, Kyaw Hla Aung says Rohingya leaders were recently called to a meeting with the military. “We submitted to them that, in Sittwe, our people didn’t involve in this case.”
Past the army base and razor-wire fences that divide the camps from Rakhine Buddhist neighbourhoods, the Muslim ghetto in downtown Sittwe is racked with fear.
“We are doing security for the quarter by ourselves,” says one Rohingya leader during a few snatched moments of conversation out of sight of a plainclothes police officer.
“We are not sleeping at night, we sleep in the morning, wake up in the evening. After the Maungdaw attacks, we are afraid someone will take revenge.”
Additional reporting by Aung Naing Soe.