SITTWE, Burma — A security crackdown following militant attacks has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in a predominantly Muslim region of Burma and focused international attention on the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Burmese troops launched a wide-ranging manhunt last month in a troubled area of northern Rakhine state populated largely by Rohingya Muslims, leaving scorched homes and displaced residents in their wake.
The manhunt followed an Oct. 9 attack on police posts that left nine policemen dead. The government has accused members of the Rohingya community of being behind the attack. Another police officer was killed in what may have been a second militant attack last week, according to state media.
Renata Lok-Dessallien, the United Nations resident coordinator in Burma, was among a team of United Nations officials and diplomats who visited the affected area last week. She said authorities had assured the U.N. that aid would resume after being effectively cut off for weeks. But how soon is not clear.
U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel has called for a “thorough investigation” into alleged abuse and for the restoration of humanitarian access, the State Department said.
An estimated 15 members of the security forces — roughly 10 police and five soldiers — have died and more than 30 Muslim residents have been reported killed in the security crackdown. Burma is also known as Myanmar.
Human Rights Watch has reported that satellite data shows villages that have been burned, and the Reuters news agency and the Myanmar Times newspaper have chronicled the alleged rape of Muslim women by soldiers. The Myanmar Times reporter was fired following her report on the issue.
“Any allegation of rape or sexual violence is a profound concern to us,” Lok-Dessallien said.
Residents in Rakhine describe a landscape of fear in which members of the Rohingya community have allegedly been barred from going to mosques or work.
“We can’t go anywhere, as we’re not allowed to,” Min Hlaing, a Muslim businessman in a restricted area near Maungdaw, said last week by telephone.
He said food prices had risen as a result of roadblocks and claimed that at least one community leader was held by security forces.
The crisis marks the first major test of Suu Kyi’s new democratically elected administration, which took over March 31 after decades of military rule. Analysts say she must find a way to work with Burma’s powerful military, which still controls the country’s security forces.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been accused of not doing enough to address the Rohingya crisis despite her lifelong commitment to Burmese freedom.
In an interview with The Washington Post in New Delhi on Oct. 18, Suu Kyi said border security posts must be strengthened, rule of law followed and a development plan created for the area.
“So many things have to be done simultaneously. It’s not an easy job,” she said. “But we are, of course, determined to contain the situation and to make sure that we restore peace and harmony as soon as possible.”
Suu Kyi’s government has said the men who attacked police posts on Oct. 9 were from a little-known group with foreign backing. In YouTube videos, the group has called itself the Movement of Faith.
There are about 1 million Rohingya Muslims in Burma who are essentially stateless, and many in the Buddhist-majority country consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. More than 120,000 Rohingya remain confined to dirty camps in the area after violent clashes with their Buddhist neighbors in 2012.
Rohingyas said they do not believe that there was a militant group operating in the state.
“This is a rumor. This is not true. This is the deliberate assassination from the government,” said Mohamed Amin, 21, a Rohingya who lives in the heavily guarded Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe.
More than 16,000 people from both faiths have been displaced by the search, and 100,000 are without their regular food assistance, according to Pierre Peron, of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Health services have been suspended, and weeks have passed without access to mobile health clinics and emergency referrals.
“You have a very vulnerable population that is even more vulnerable now,” Peron said last week.
The state government spokesman, Tin Maung Shwe, said the matter was “an internal affair, not an international affair.”
Residents in the crowded camps said that in the days after the attacks, doctors who normally visit a few times a week did not show, although some visits have resumed.
Suu Kyi blamed the health-care deficit on the security situation.
“It’s even difficult for us to provide enough security to give them the health care that they need,” she said. “It is another big problem, because doctors and nurses who go to camps [for displaced people] are not treated well by the communities when they go back.”
She added, “The whole thing is a rigmarole.”
At a community health clinic in the Muslim neighborhood in Sittwe one day recently, there were no doctors, just a weary-looking pharmacist and several patients waiting in a dimly lit room.
“We are doing as much as we can,” said Maung Htun, 54, the pharmacist. “But now we are only capable of healing small things.”
Suu Kyi said that the government must create a resettlement program. A controversial citizenship-verification process that has been criticized by rights groups has been stymied because, Suu Kyi said, many Rohingya refused to participate.
“We can’t fix a time frame, because it depends on how much everybody is prepared to cooperate,” she said. “We started off this movement for citizenship verification in order that we might move forward, but then, if there is no cooperation, it has been very difficult for us.”
On the ground, the latest flare-up has frayed hope and diminished an already low level of confidence in Suu Kyi’s government.
Maung Aye Shwe, 18, a volunteer teacher in one of the camps, said nothing has changed since Suu Kyi’s historic election a year ago.
“There is no improvement within this year. We are having just oppression — no changes or improvement,” he said.
Maung Kyaw Win, 42, said that he once worked as a goldsmith in his village, and that he does not know when he and his family will be able to return home. But he does know that relations with his Muslim neighbors will not be the same.
“No one will trust each other until the end of the universe,” he said.
Gowen reported from New Delhi. Aung Naing Soe contributed from Sittwe.