Rohingya Muslims come under attack from Arakan Army of Buddhists in Myanmar; 45,000 forced to flee fighting in Rakhine

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Muslim Rohingya houses reduced to ashes by Arakan Army in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Photo credit: Shiawaves.com

By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – A brutal attack by Arakan Army, comprising Buddhists in the conflict-ridden Muslim-majority Rakhine state in Myanmar, has forced about 45,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee amid the allegations of beheadings, killings and burning of property. Two northernmost townships of Buthidaung and Maungdaw in Rakhine have come under attack and have reportedly been set on fire by Arakan Army which is mainly fighting the Myanmar’s military government.

Though the Arakan Army claims that it is fighting for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine population, its fighters have targeted the Rohingya Muslim population, which has been suffering since 2017, when thousands of Rohingyas were forced to take shelter in neighbouring Bangladesh after fleeing the state. The crackdown by the military on the Rohingya is at present the subject matter of a United Nations genocide court case.

The Arakan Army has taken control of more than half of the Rakhine state and nine of its 17 townships since launching an offensive against military positions in November last year. The army of the rebels has also taken control of neighbouring Paletwa township in Chin state. Clashes have rocked Rakhine since the Arakan Army members attacked the military government in November last year, ending a ceasefire which had largely held since a military coup in 2021.

Rohingya Muslims have been caught in the middle of the fighting, but the Buddhist residents of Myanmar, either from the government or the rebel side, have long considered them as outsiders. The Arakan Army is the well-armed military wing of the Rakhine ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. It is also a member of an armed ethnic group alliance which recently gained strategic territory in the country’s north-east on the border with China.

The Arakan Army has now started blaming Rohingyas of fighting alongside the soldiers of Myanmar’s Army, who are retreating from the areas of its influence. A spokesperson of Arakan Army claimed that its troops were looking after the Muslim villagers trying to escape from the region of the conflict, but its track record of attacks on Rohingyas makes the claim doubtful, as it cannot be independently verified.

Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for several generations, but they are widely regarded by many in the country’s Buddhist majority, including members of the Rakhine minority, as having illegally migrated from Bangladesh. Rohingyas face a great amount of prejudice and are generally denied citizenship and other basic rights in Myanmar.

The 2021 military coup which ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi shifted political alignments, with a resistance movement against military rule counting the Rohingya population among its allies. But there is a continuing tension between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the more than six lakh Rohingyas who are still living in Rakhine. The government has started recruiting Rohingyas living in displacement camps to do military service.

The Arakan Army had warned Buthidaung’s Rohingya residents to evacuate the town, while more than two lakh Rohingyas, seeking refuge in houses, government buildings, a hospital, and schools, were in an extremely dangerous situation. Arakan Army fired on a school and a hospital where displaced Rohingya are sheltering, resulting in deaths and injuries.

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya who is Deputy Minister for Human Rights in the resistance movement’s shadow National Unity Government, said that Buthidaung had been burned to “a pile of ash” and that its residents had fled to rice fields outside of town. He said the situation was dire for those who fled. He also demanded an impartial investigation into the violence, while affirming that the revolution against the military dictatorship did not give a licence to anyone to do what they liked.

The United Nations has stated that it has received “frightening and disturbing reports” from Rakhine, where Muslim Rohingya communities have once again come under attack. Elizabeth Throssell, spokesperson for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said at a press briefing in Geneva that her office had received reports of widespread burning of homes and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Muslim Rohingyas, in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.

“Some of the most serious allegations concern incidents of killing of Rohingya civilians and the burning of their property,” Throssell said, putting the number of displaced civilians in the two townships in the tens of thousands. She added that an estimated 45,000 Rohingya have reportedly fled to an area on the Naf River near the border with Bangladesh, while seeking protection.

Reports of arson, attacks and the mass displacement of civilians, mostly Rohingyas, emerged in mid-May, after the Arakan Army burnt down Buthidaung. “We have received information indicating that the burning started two days after the military had retreated from the town early this month and the Arakan Army claimed to have taken full control,” Throssell said.

These reports bear a close resemblance to the massive operation that the Myanmar military launched against Rohingya villages in August 2017. The campaign has been described by both the United States government and the U.N. as an act of genocide. While the OHCHR said that it was corroborating information received about who was responsible for the burning of Buthidaung, Rohingya eyewitness reports suggest that it is not the military, but the Arakan Army which has been behind the recent attacks.

At least four cases of beheadings by the Arakan Army have been confirmed, as well as multiple enforced disappearances of individuals. Other Rohingya survivors have spoken of being blocked from leaving Buthidaung by the Arakan Army, thus having to choose more perilous exit routes. The Arakan Army also reportedly abused the survivors and took money from them.

The evidence available so far has pointed to Arakan Army’s responsibility, but the military also shares the blame. Over the last few months, the Myanmar Army, known as junta, has sought to conscript Rohingyas in order to shift the attention away from its rapid loss of territory to the Arakan Army. In this process, the military has tried to capitalize on the sectarian tensions between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities.

London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has noted in its latest conflict update that as many as 5,000 Rohingyas could now be fighting for the regime in Rakhine. The IISS said that the Arakan Army has reacted with inflammatory rhetoric and violence directed at the Rohingya.

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