The Burning of Buthidaung: Allegations, Denials, and Silence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

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The Burning of Buthidaung: Allegations, Denials, and Silence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Reports of arson attacks and the mass displacement of Rohingya civilians in western Myanmar are being used as rhetorical weapons in the country’s civil war.

The Burning of Buthidaung: Allegations, Denials, and Silence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

An empty boat sits on a river in Buthidaung Township, Rakhine State, Myanmar, May 23, 2015.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/mohigan

On May 17, the Arakan Army (AA, now rebranded as the Arakha Army) captured the town of Buthidaung in the northern part of Rakhine State in Myanmar’s west. The next day, large parts of the town had reportedly burned down.

While the events of May 17-18 are still being pieced together, they immediately prompted allegations from Rohingya activists that AA fighters were responsible for arson and the forced displacement. Citing various eyewitness accounts, they claimed that thousands of Rohingya previously living in Buthidaung had been left homeless.

Blaming the fires on regime air strikes, the AA has categorically denied the allegations and doubled down with strong rebukes. Domestic media platforms’ coverage has been non-committal at best while resistance organizations and netizens have closed ranks to defend the group. Although the military State Administration Council (SAC) has intentionally used Buthidaung and the conscription of Rohingya as a way of weaponizing communal tensions against the AA, the way the events have played out, and the way in which anti-regime groups have reacted, are not encouraging for the country’s ongoing struggles.

The Town

Located 90 kilometers northwest of the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, and 20 kilometers east of Maungdaw on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, Buthidaung is the eponymous seat of one of the last remaining Rohingya majority townships in northern Rakhine. A 2019 government report stated that the entire township had around 206,000 residents, with 18,000 living in the town proper. It tallied 45,000 Buddhists and 160,000 Muslims (also termed “Bangladeshi citizens”) and noted an “emigration” of over 102,000 persons from “the previous year.”

In March and April of this year, the SAC orchestrated protests in Buthidaung, with Rohingya shown denouncing the conflict and the AA. “Protesters” were coerced by junta forces who reportedly threatened to burn down their homes. In mid-April, regime troops and Rohingya conscripts allegedly started fires that destroyed hundreds of homes belonging to ethnic Rakhines alongside the facilities of Doctors Without Borders. Rohingya activists say that Buthidaung town had swollen with as many as 200,000 displaced Rohingya by mid-May, with many huddled into government buildings, the main hospital, and schools.

On May 2, the AA captured the military’s 15th Military Operations Command (MOC) about five kilometers to the east of Buthidaung across the Mayu River, the second MOC it had seized after overrunning the 9th MOC in Kyauktaw in mid-February. A few days later, junta forces dynamited the bridge over the Mayu and reportedly reinforced Buthidaung with Rohingya conscripts. An Indian news outlet published allegations that nearly 1,700 Buddhists and Hindus in the town were being held “hostage” by “Islamic terror groups,” a claim dismissed by Rohingya activists.

On May 17, the AA captured the town.

The Allegations

Rohingya activists and platforms allege that shortly after seizing the town, AA fighters ordered all Rohingya to leave Buthidaung by the morning of May 18. Most refugees reportedly responded that they could not do so. According to eyewitness accounts compiled by activists, satellite imagery analyses, and a tweet from the National Unity Government (NUG)’s deputy human rights minister and Rohingya activist Aung Kyaw Moe, fires in the Rohingya areas of Buthidaung began around 10 p.m. of May 17 and burned through the night. In addition, at least 35 villages, including those firmly under the AA’s control for weeks, reportedly suffered significant fire damage, with the widespread pattern said to point toward an on-the-ground arson campaign.

A survivor reported seeing dozens of dead bodies as he fled the town and said that AA fighters were allegedly harassing and extorting fleeing Rohingya. Around 4,000 Rohingya are reported to have fled to the Bangladeshi border and thousands as well to Rohingya-majority Maungdaw, which the AA is now attacking. Leading Rohingya activists have decried the AA’s alleged actions in Buthidaung after May 17, while Rohingya organizations have called for international pressure on the group.

Furthermore, Rohingya sources have accused the AA of various cruelties before the events of May 17-18. They say that the group shelled a school and hospital in Buthidaung town where Rohingya were sheltering, resulting in several deaths. The group is also alleged of being involved in “extra-judicial killings, mass arrests, forced recruitment and the displacement of Rohingya.” Earlier accusations include deliberately targeting Rohingya villages as well as using them as launchpads and human shields to draw regime fire.

Such allegations and concerns have grown as the AA has gained more territory across northern Rakhine and its leadership has begun using language that alarmed Rohingya activists.

The Denials

The AA has categorically and vehemently rejected all of the allegations and has hit back with strong ripostes. It stated that it is liberating Rakhine for all people and termed the accusations as baseless, countering that false allegations were “betraying Rakhine State.” The group contends that Buthidaung was burned by SAC air strikes and accused the regime and its allies of spreading disinformation.

In one response, it said that its actions were “misinterpreted by some Muslim diaspora groups as forced relocations and mass displacement” and that Rohingya diaspora activists were trying to bring “particular attention only to the Buthidaung incident.” It instead called for “balanced attention and concentration to all the horrible civilian loss of lives and property across Myanmar, including Arakan.”

The group has released photos and videos showcasing its troops assisting Rohingya and interviews with refugees. The AA said that it is providing humanitarian aid to around 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Buthidaung and Maungdaw, of which around 80 percent are said to be Muslims, and later appealed for humanitarian aid for around 500,000 IDPs. Rakhine news platforms have repeated the AA’s line on inter-ethnic harmony and showcased communities co-existing in the group’s territories. They also called attention to the burned homes of non-Rohingya in Buthidaung as well as to other towns bombed by the regime, and have accused Rohingya militant groups of collaborating with the regime.

As the Buthidaung allegations emerged, the AA’s popular leader Twan Mrat Naing urged people “not to buy any distorted [and] misleading craps [sic] during this challenging time” and told Rohingya activists to “stop selfish grumpiness” and to abandon their “misbegotten scheme of creating a separate Islamic safe zone.” In another rebuff, he wished that people singing to the tune of international donors instead of the “contextualized truth” would accept a fitting political future. His other tweets have alarmed Rohingya activists, such as defending the use of the term “Bengali” and patronizingly gloating over the surrender of forcibly recruited Rohingya.

The AA in turn has accused Rohingya groups, including militant outfits, of weaponizing the term “genocide” and issued a blistering response when 195 anti-regime organizations cited the allegations and urged the group to protect civilian populations. It countered that the allegations were one-sided and accused the signatories of being useful idiots under the human rights label, demanding the organizations to clarify their positions. Some groups have since withdrawn  and blamed themselves for “not properly understanding the situation.”

Complicating the matter is that a number of major platforms appeared to have used photos of regime-attributed incidents from other parts of Rakhine in their articles on the Buthidaung incident. With the use fake photos a perennial issue in Myanmar’s conflict, Rakhine pages and politicians have accused the platforms as well as activists of deliberately spreading disinformation. The military has set up fake Telegram channels, which have aired supposed Rohingya grievances against the AA and also circulated a fake NUG press release listing alleged AA abuses against the Rohingya.

Furthermore, the fluid situation has contributed to discrepancies, such as the number of Rohingya reported to have fled to the Bangladeshi border originally reported at 45,000 and now revised to 4,000, fueling charges of alarmist language and exaggeration from Rakhine organizations. Both the AA and some commentators contend that Rohingya diaspora activists have maintained a hardline attitude of distrust toward the group while Rohingya communities on the ground are purportedly more supportive.

Silence and Support

Beyond the allegations and denials, an interesting dynamic has emerged over how resistance groups and platforms have responded to the allegations. Revolutionary groups, popular news pages, and netizens are either skirting the issue or rushing to the AA’s defense while activists’ efforts to bring global attention to Buthidaung have been met with harassment and accusations of being foreign pawns.

Initially, the NUG expressed alarm over the situation in Buthidaung and said there were “allegations of large-scale forced displacement of civilians, particularly Rohingya, the destruction of property, and the burning of villages.” It soon backtracked on that particular sentence by issuing a revised statement that squarely blamed the SAC for stirring inter-communal conflict and destroying villages, and noting that “Rakhine, Rohingya, and Hindu civilians are being forced to move and their houses are being burnt.” The NUG’s Acting President Duwa Lashi La later said that the AA and Rohingya communities were working together to prevent the tensions from escalating.

Major and local news platforms known for their prompt and incisive reportage on regime abuses either carried sterile reports of Buthidaung’s capture or parroted the AA’s version of events. While the events in Myawaddy on the Thai border saw a deluge of articles and analyses, Buthidaung and the Rohingya activists’ allegations received muted coverage among domestic sites, with the qualification that regime internet restrictions hampered verification. Similarly, analysis and commentary pages have been non-committal or silent over the allegations, in sharp contrast to their prolific coverage of the conflict, including regime atrocities against all communities in northern Rakhine.

Being one of the most potent and successful groups fighting the military, the AA is seen as a standard bearer to be emulated by other resistance groups and arguably occupies a higher rung on the resistance popularity ladder than the NUG. As such, many anti-regime groups, commentators, and netizens are loath to offend the AA and have rushed to its defense over the allegations. Some resistance groups declared that they stood firm with the AA, stating that “baseless conclusions” risked yielding falsehoods. Even those attempting to point out the allegations do so while reaffirming their respect and admiration for the group and its leader. Meanwhile, members of the Rakhine diaspora protested against the United Nations, alleging bias, and contend that fixating on the allegations has only benefitted the military regime.

On social media, many netizens have proclaimed that they stand with the AA over the allegations. The AA’s supporters see such accusations more as headwinds from the regime and “jealous groups” as the AA nears its objectives. Articles that quoted Rohingya activists about Buthidaung or other incidents were flooded with “haha” reactions and angry comments accusing the platforms or activists of peddling disinformation, selling out to foreign interests or being obsessed with the Rohingya. Meanwhile, Rohingya netizens are swarming AA-affiliated social media profiles demanding answers or outright accusing the AA of being “terrorists just like the regime.”

Some pro-resistance netizens have partially accepted the credibility of the allegations surrounding Buthidaung, and called for the incident to be contextualized into the broader suffering of all the different communities caught up in the civil war. Others have been outright dismissive, labeling the allegations as a regime ploy while hurling vitriol at Rohingya activists, asking why they supposedly kept quiet when the regime burned other towns. They also say that it is regime trolls who are stirring online animus between the communities something that is definitely at play, but this line is used all too frequently to deflect blame.

Resistance groups that signed the petition urging the AA to protect civilians have been attacked as “parroting junta narratives,” being driven by donor money, and acting as “human rights stooges” who are missing the forest for the trees. Some have even been accused of “betraying the revolution.”

Uncertain Future

The SAC cynically coerced Rohingya into the military to lay a trap for the AA in Buthidaung aimed at triggering a scorched earth policy built upon sectarian strife. That said, it was a trap that the AA knowingly walked into and has made worse with its rhetoric. Commentators note that the AA has backtracked on its commitments to the Rohingya community as its position strengthens in Rakhine. The group recently asked the NUG to limit its “interference” in certain matters concerning Rakhine, a likely reference to the Rohingya issue. This raises questions about the AA’s Rohingya policy, which it pledged to reveal upon receiving international recognition.

The way the anti-regime media landscape has treated the issue is not encouraging. It reflects a broader issue where many platforms and commentators driven by revolutionary solidarity and opposition to the SAC act as the stenographers and town criers of resistance organizations, generally toning down or avoiding coverage that will cast such groups in a negative light. Likewise, pro-resistance netizens’ quick reversion to racist language, their fervent defense of the AA, and the hounding of activists – all in the name of the revolution’s “bigger picture” – are worrying behaviors.

Having ruled out negotiations, the AA is now pressing down on Maungdaw and has vowed to advance onto Sittwe and Kyaukphyu, all of which contain significant Muslim (Rohingya and Kaman) populations confined to camps and preyed upon by the regime’s conscription effort. Fresh allegations have emerged of mass killings, abductions, and forced recruitment of Rohingya by AA personnel in both Buthidaung and Maungdaw. One analysis noted that AA fighters have conducted acts resembling collective punishment onto Rohingya communities in retaliation for the latter’s involvement, voluntary or otherwise, with the regime’s conscription drive.

The embattled SAC is ramping up atrocities against Rakhine communities, which, combined with Rakhine anger at what they perceive as myopic international fixation on the Rohingya, is only fueling more communal malice. More recently, the AA accused regime troops, a collaborationist Rakhine militia, and Rohingya conscripts of massacring dozens of ethnic Rakhines in Byine Phyu village outside of Sittwe. Resistance organizations quickly condemned the massacre and pledged to help “pursue justice.” The junta rejected the claim as AA propaganda, in turn alleging that the AA was using Byine Phyu to deflect allegations surrounding Buthidaung.

As a side note, the Chin and smaller ethnic groups like the Mro have made a number of allegations against the AA over the years, including forced recruitment, forced labor, detentions, extortion, and the confiscation of meager food supplies. Chin communities in AA-administered Paletwa Township in Chin State are reportedly complaining that the AA has treated local communities “worse” than regime troops. One activist warned that Chin communities were tolerating the AA’s abuses to a certain extent as fellow revolutionaries, but said that the AA needed to own up to its actions. Adding more concern for Rakhine’s post-junta future are the mixed pictures and frictions emerging out of the territories in northern Shan State now administered by the AA’s allies.

Although the full details still remain unknown, the allegations surrounding Buthidaung, Byine Phyu, and other incidents across Rakhine State warrant thorough and impartial investigations in order to help avert perpetual sectarian violence. Whatever emerges concerning Buthidaung will not change the fundamental fact that the military is responsible for the lion’s share of atrocities against different communities across Myanmar as well as for sowing and exploiting communal tensions. That said, the allegations and reactions should also serve as a sobering reminder for outside observers to temper their overly-optimistic prognostications of Myanmar’s future.