SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Ever since deadly attacks by alleged Muslim militants in Myanmar’s troubled northwestern Rakhine State, Myint Lwin says he has been unable to sleep at night. As rumors spread of fresh violence, even the sound of dogs barking frightened him.
“No one in the village has had enough sleep since last month,” said Myint Lwin, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from a Muslim-majority village in the north of the state. “We were scared when we heard people shouting and dogs barking in the middle of the night.”
The 18-year-old motorbike taxi driver is one of 116 civilians to sign up for a new auxiliary police force in Rakhine State, part of the response by authorities to the latest spasm of violence that began with attacks on border police posts that killed nine officers on Oct. 9.
Human rights monitors say arming and training non-Muslims will lead to further bloodshed in the divided state, but Myint Lwin sees it as necessary for self-defense.
“These Muslims are trying to abuse our Buddhist women and people, so I want to protect our country from them,” he told Reuters, wearing his new police uniform with a badge bearing a white star on the shoulder.
Sixty-nine suspected insurgents and 17 members of the security forces have been killed, according to official reports since a military crackdown began last month along Myanmar’s frontier with Bangladesh.
It is the most serious unrest in the state since hundreds were killed in communal clashes between Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Residents and rights advocates have also accused security forces of killing and raping civilians and setting fire to homes in the area, where the vast majority of residents are Rohingya Muslims. The government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the army reject the accusations.
There have been no reports of insurgent attacks on Buddhist civilians.
Chanting an oath of loyalty to the state, the new recruits began an accelerated training program in the state capital Sittwe this week. Mostly Rakhine Buddhists in their early 20s, in 16 weeks they will be deployed guarding border posts in the tense north.
The training is two months shorter than the program undertaken by regular police and the recruits did not have to meet the usual entrance criteria such as educational attainment standards and minimum height.
Only citizens were eligible, excluding the 1.1 million Rohingyas living in Rakhine State who are denied citizenship in Myanmar, where many regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The recruits, who are from across Rakhine, will be given training courses including martial arts, use of weapons and riot control.
“The ethnic Rakhine asked the government to protect them in the Muslim-majority region,” said Rakhine State police chief Colonel Sein Lwin. “If we have enough police force, we can give more security to them.”
He said the recruits would help protect residents from what the government has described as a Rohingya Muslim militant group, estimated to be 400-strong, that has been blamed for the Oct. 9 attacks.
“These Muslims never follow the laws,” Sein Lwin said. “They are trying to seize land and extend their territory in northern Rakhine and kill Rakhine ethnics.”
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported that apart from the special training for new police recruits, “healthy Rakhine women” and wives of members of the security forces had received military training in January.
The auxiliary force will come under the control of the border police. After an 18-month stint on the border, the recruits will be deployed to police stations close to their hometowns.
They will be paid 150,000 Kyat ($115) monthly, a salary many recruits said was less than they earned as civilians.
“I don’t care about salary,” said Than Lwin Oo, a 24-year-old waiter from the northern Buthidaung township who failed a college entrance exam - a requirement to join the regular police.
“I dislike the Muslim who try to intimidate our country. That is one of the reasons why I want to become a policeman.”
While officials have said the auxiliary police recruits are not a new “people’s militia”, like those that fight ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Myanmar, some observers fear the move will sharpen tensions between the two communities.
“This is a recipe for rights abuses against the Rohingya,”said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The Burmese government is foolhardy to think they will be able to control the local recruits operating on a basis of bias against the Rohingya people.”
Not all the recruits voiced hostility towards Muslims.
Kyaw San Win, 29, said he had always wanted to join the police, but had not achieved the level of education usually required. He said his village of 100 houses in northern Rakhine was close to a Muslim settlement of 500 homes.
“I have some Muslim friends, they are not bad people, and we have no problems,” he said.
But many Muslims say the auxiliary program was likely to worsen the distrust and fear between the two communities.
“We don’t dare to go out on the street. If they found us, they would accuse us of being insurgents,” said a Rohingya teacher from northern Rakhine, who asked not to be named because he was afraid of repercussions.
In Buddhist Rakhine communities the fear is just as palpable. Some living in the Muslim-majority north said the auxiliary police recruitment comes too little and too late.
“The police training is useless,” said Kyaw Win from a village where some 1,200 Rohingya houses outnumber the 40 ethnic Rakhine households. He said some 50 Rakhine villagers have fled since fighting escalated in mid-November.
He urged the government to reinforce with militias with weapons rather than police.
“We don’t know what would happen in the future,” he said. “We can get killed any time because we are surrounded by Muslims.” ($1 = 1,299.0000 kyat)
Editing by Alex Richardson