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For Rohingya, anti-junta gains in Myanmar bring fear as well as hope

‘Our only recourse is to pray to Allah for salvation.’

This is a longshot showing villagers running between rice paddies as they flee fighting between junta forces and the Arakan Army near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto
Villagers flee as fighting breaks out between junta forces and the Arakan Army near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on 6 February 2024. Fighting between the two has intensified since November 2023.

Myanmar has increasingly been beset by violence as armed groups have united to challenge the territorial control of the ruling junta. Like its semi-democratic predecessors, the junta has been accused of grave rights abuses against civilians in the two years it has been in total power.

Since November 2023, armed groups – many based on ethnic allegiances – have wrested more and more territory from the nation’s military leaders. In the dominant media narrative, those gains have been billed as an “emergence of hope” and a trend that “shouldn’t” cause fear.

However, recent reports from Rohingya Muslim communities, who have faced decades of persecution at the hands of various Buddhist-dominated governments, are eroding the goodwill afforded to the Arakan Army (AA), arguably the most prominent of these resistance groups.

The AA, who are fighting for greater autonomy for the Rakhine community, previously claimed it would embrace the Rohingya despite decades of strife between the two ethnicities, but reports of targeted civilian abuses and inflammatory rhetoric call those claims into question.

Last week, AA forces were accused of setting fire to and looting Rohingya homes in the western state of Rakhine. More than 200,000 people fled the arson attacks, according to international media reports.

A Rohingya rights organisation claims the fires began on the evening of 17 May, by which time the AA had already taken full control of the village of Buthidaung, near the border with Bangladesh. Rohingya sources say 8,000 homes in the central area of the village were torched by AA fighters who had told the Rohingya residents to evacuate their homes despite there being no junta forces in the area.

The UN confirmed the timing in these reports.

“We have received information indicating that the burning did start on May 17… two days after the military had retreated from the town… and the Arakan Army claimed to have taken full control of the village,” James Rodehaver, head of the Myanmar team for the UN rights office (OHCHR), told the media, speaking from Bangkok.

Sources in Buthidaung told The New Humanitarian that the fires began ahead of an AA-mandated 18 May deadline for Muslim residents to flee the area. A post on X (formerly Twitter) by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent media outlet, said the AA has also ordered Rohingya to fight alongside their forces, a forced conscription tactic similar to one the junta is also accused of employing.

Though the junta forces had left the area by 17 May, media reports say that between 40,000 and 50,000 of Buthidaung’s nearly 300,000 Rohingya residents had to flee due to increased fighting and threats of forced conscriptions by both sides.

The New Humanitarian reached out to the AA for comment on these and other allegations, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication*.

“We are completely surrounded by the Arakan Army, and we have no means to leave the village or escape. Our only recourse is to pray to Allah for salvation.” 

Rohingya sources speaking to The New Humanitarian say their community, which has been denied citizenship rights since 1982, is now trapped in the middle of a worsening civil war – coerced into conscription by the junta, but also facing abuse at the hands of the AA at a time when neighbouring states are closing their borders and providing few rights to asylum seekers.

As fighting intensifies across Myanmar, the Rohingya say they are unable to flee to safety either inside or outside the country.

“We are completely surrounded by AA, and we have no means to leave the village or escape. Our only recourse is to pray to Allah for salvation,” Shabbir Huson, a 46-year-old Rohingya resident of Buthidaung, told The New Humanitarian by phone.

In an attempt to find safety, groups of Rohingya villagers are starting to gather together, but Mohammad Rohim, a Rohingya resident, said the AA is actively trying to stop them.

In U Hla Hpay, in the north of Rakhine state, AA insurgents have surrounded villages and are preventing anyone from leaving. Residents say AA fighters have been using Rohingya villages to hide in, hoping they will act as civilian cover from junta airstrikes, but that the strikes have happened anyway, consistently leading to civilian deaths.

Growing list of alleged abuses

It’s estimated that the military has conducted almost 2,500 airstrikes since the junta seized power in February 2021, with at least 359 civilian deaths reported in the first four months of this year alone.

The AA claims it only targets Rohingya villages when it hears reports that they are harbouring fighters belonging to the the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya armed group that it has accused of collaborating with the junta.

For the past six months, there have been daily clashes between the AA, ARSA, and the junta. Mohammed Saif, A Rohingya citizen journalist, told The New Humanitarian that this is leading to rarely documented deaths of Rohingya civilians across several parts of Rakhine state, including Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Sittwe, Pauktaw, and Mrauk U. Sources say a communication blackout is making the tracking and reporting of such deaths more difficult.

Javiet Ali, a Rohingya resident of Rakhine state, told The New Humanitarian that two people were shot dead on 13 April on a boat by the AA while attempting to escape from Monibil village.

Shahidullah from Buthidaung, who goes by one name, said his mother was shot dead by the AA on 12 April while she was looking for her son, Zahidullah, who had reportedly been abducted by the AA the day before.

Both the AA and the junta have been accused of using Rohingya villages as their battlegrounds and hiding spots, forcing their way into Rohingya houses and staying there for any length of time after driving out the homeowners.

“When the AA found her alone in Alay Chaung village, they killed her and left the body," a villager, who asked for anonymity due to security fears, told The New Humanitarian. A WhatsApp voice message from Shahidullah detailing the situation to his brother in Saudi Arabia has gone viral.

According to the report, the AA set fire to the village, resulting in hundreds of homes being burnt down and 3,000 people fleeing to neighbouring villages. In this April attack on unarmed villagers, 25 people died, several others were injured, and numerous abductions by the AA were reported. 

Alom, 43, recalled how his cousin Nuru was killed by suspected AA forces on 15 April. “He was on his way home. The area where he was killed is under the control of the Arakan Army, and later we confirmed that he was killed by the AA," Alom told The New Humanitarian.

Both the AA and the junta have been accused of using Rohingya villages as their battlegrounds and hiding spots, forcing their way into Rohingya houses and staying there for any length of time after driving out the homeowners.

“On 17 April, AA entered my house, and AA also entered my brother Abul Kalam's house and asked us to leave. Then both our families fled to a nearby hamlet,” said a young Rohingya man who requested anonymity. 

Rohim, a resident of Buthidaung Township who also uses one name, said the dead body of a man by the name of Mohammad Yousuf was discovered on 27 March, two months after he was reportedly abducted by AA forces. On 7 January, the AA reportedly looted a grocery store in Parun Chaung, Buthidaung Township, kidnapping five individuals, including the shop owner. Their fate remains unknown.

Worrisome rhetoric

This growing list of reported abuses flies in the face of public statements from AA leader Twan Mrat Naing. Initially, Twan Mrat Naing promised the Rohingya that – under AA rule – they would finally gain back some of the rights they had lost in the 1980s.

Recently, however, he has changed his tune, frequently posting venomous propaganda to his nearly 80,000 followers on X that risks escalating communal violence, potentially leading to a second wave of genocide against the Rohingya.

“Some irrational individuals refuse to acknowledge the presence of Bengali ppl living in Arakan,” he said in a March post. His reference to Bengalis is a veiled allusion to decades-long claims by various governments in Myanmar that the Rohingya are not from Myanmar and should therefore not be granted the full rights of citizenship.

Other posts referring to Bangladesh’s own battle for independence from Pakistan in 1971 have been seen as an attempt by Twan Mrat Naing to tie the Rohingya to Bangladesh and win Dhaka’s support for Myanmar’s 40-year claim that the Rohingya are not in fact Indigenous to the country.

Twan Mrat Naing’s repeated use of the word Bengali has also led to accusations that he is employing rhetoric eerily similar to that of the former government, led by former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi. That semi-democratic government, which was ousted by the 2021 coup, still faces accusations by the UN’s top court, the International Court of Justice, that it waged an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.

On 13 April, AA spokesperson Khine Thu Kha released a statement referring to radical Muslim terrorists, suggesting that Muslims are threatening and forcing Rakhine people in Buthidaung to flee. It is feared this and similar rhetoric could further fuel sectarianism in the country.

The AA has begun using Indian media to spread misinformation and increase hate speech among the diverse community of Rakhine state.

Recently, The New Indian Express published baseless news accusing a Rohingya armed group of holding more than 1,600 Hindus and 120 Buddhists without any evidence. The 15 April report made reference to “Islamic terror groups” that it claimed are working with the ruling military “to kill and terrorise ethnic groups on the basis of religion”.

Twan Mrat Naing and his fellow Rakhine are widely circulating this information on social media. In turn, many ethnic Rakhine people are now issuing threats and spreading hate speech through their social media channels.

(*A response did come after publication. It can be read in full here.)

Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Andrew Gully.

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