Arakan Army Takes Key Town in Western Myanmar, While Denying Rohingya Attacks

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Arakan Army Takes Key Town in Western Myanmar, While Denying Rohingya Attacks

Rights groups have accused the Arakan Army of displacing tens of thousands of Rohingya civilians during its seizure of the town of Buthidaung.

Arakan Army Takes Key Town in Western Myanmar, While Denying Rohingya Attacks

A lake in Buthidaung Township, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, as seen on September 7, 2016.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/mohigan

The Arakan Army (AA) claims that it has seized control of a strategic town in western Myanmar after weeks of fighting, amid reports of arson attacks and mass displacement of Rohingya communities in the area.

The AA said yesterday its soldiers had taken Buthidaung, a township in northern Rakhine State close to the border with Bangladesh, after overrunning the Myanmar military’s 15th Military Operations Command in the township center on Saturday.

“We have conquered all the bases in Buthidaung and also took over the town yesterday,” Reuters quoted AA spokesperson Khine Thu Kha as saying. The AA also posted photos to its social media channels over the weekend showing its fighters posing for trophy shots with their flag in Buthidaung.

Fighting for control of Buthidaung and neighboring Maungdaw Township has raged for several months. The apparent fall of the town caps a dry season of significant gains by the AA, which now exercises primary control over the northern half of Rakhine State, and its entire border with Bangladesh, except for the state capital Sittwe. The AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan, envisions the creation of an independent Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

But the announcement has been overshadowed by reports that the fall of Buthidaung involved the widespread burning of homes and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Muslim Rohingyas. These reports, which were backed up by satellite imagery showing plumes of black smoke over Buthidaung, bear more than a passing resemblance to the massive “clearance operation” that the military launched against Rohingya villages in August 2017. The campaign, which led to the expulsion of more than 740,000 people across the Bangladeshi border, has been described by both the United States government and the United Nations as an act of genocide.

The ethnic cleansing operation left only around 600,000 Rohingya within Myanmar’s borders, just 20 percent of the total global population. Of these, around 140,000 people remain confined to camps for the internally displaced, while the remainder are scattered across the north of the state, including in Buthidaung and Maungdaw.

In a statement issued late yesterday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk called on the AA and the Myanmar military to stop fighting and allow humanitarian organizations to access the area.

In the statement, Turk said that he was “deeply alarmed by reports of renewed violence and property destruction in Buthidaung township.” He added, “With inter-communal tensions between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya high – and being actively stoked by the military – this is a critical period when the risk of yet further atrocity crimes is particularly acute.”

While responsibility for the attacks remains unclear, early evidence and eyewitness claims point not at the Myanmar military, the most obvious culprit, but the Arakan Army, a group widely hailed for its recent military gains against the junta. Soldiers from the AA “came into downtown, forced the people to leave their homes, and started torching houses,” Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition advocacy group told Reuters, based on what he said were eyewitness accounts. “While the town was burning, I spoke with several people I have known and trusted for years. They all testified that the arson attack was done by the AA.”

In comments to Nikkei Asia, Nay San Lwin estimated about 150,000 residents, most of them Rohingya, had been left homeless by the conflict. Many were sleeping on the road or in paddy fields; some had tried to reach neighboring Maungdaw Township but were blocked by AA forces. In a statement, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar said that the AA “seems to be turning its guns on the defenseless Rohingya people to complete the genocide undertaken by the same military it has opposed.”

The AA denied responsibility for any attacks on Rohingya communities. According to Reuters, its spokesperson Khine Thu Kha said the destruction was carried out by the Myanmar Air Force and Muslim insurgent groups aligned with the military. “The burning of Buthidaung is due to the air strikes from the junta’s jet fighter before our troops entered the town,” he said.  The AA issued statements on social media that it would protect “all inhabitants of Rakhine, regardless of race and religion.”

With both sides trading accusations, Thomas Kean of the International Crisis Group wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the truth would eventually come out, as it did in 2017. “But the AA is still attacking in neighboring Maungdaw,” he said, adding that “it must take steps to ensure the disaster in Buthidaung is not simply replicated there.”

The renewed attacks on the Rohingya, once described by a U.N. official as “probably the most friendless people in the world,” reflect the toxic and tangled state of ethnic relations in Rakhine State, especially since 2017, when Buddhist ethnic Rakhine vigilantes helped the military carry out its ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslim Rohingya communities in northern Rakhine State.

Earlier this year, as part of its nationwide conscription drive, the Myanmar military began forcibly enlisting Rohingya in western Myanmar, in the hope of replenishing its thinning ranks and staving off the AA’s advances. While the Rohingya were probably targeted for enlistment because few ethnic Rakhines could be induced to fight the AA, it is likely that the military was also hoping to capitalize on the current tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. This weekend’s violence may well be linked to this decision, underlining the point, made by many at the time, that conscripting Rohingya soldiers would only further poison the well of Rakhine-Rohingya relations and guarantee further outrages against the Muslim minority group.

Whether or not what it says is true, the AA does not appear overly sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya. Even though the group has promised to respect the rights of Rohingyas in a future independent Rakhine, the group and its leaders, including AA commander Twan Mrat Naing, have frequently referred to them as “Bengali.” As well as suggesting that they are foreign to Myanmar, the word “Bengali” was used to justify the Myanmar military’s expulsion of Rohingya from Rakhine State in 2017, and to link the minority group to Islamophobic strains of Rakhine and Bamar nationalism.

In a social media post addressed to Rohingya “diaspora and activists” yesterday, Twan Mrat Naing took them to task for highlighting the suffering of their compatriots in Buthidaung. “Please stop [your] selfish grumpiness & sabotaging, dragging the struggle in the wrong direction. It is time to abandon your misbegotten scheme of creating a separate Islamic safe zone through foreign interventions,” he said. “It is very unpatriotic.”