Myanmar's Military Government Denies Allegations By Ethnic Army Foe That It Killed 76 Villagers

In this photo taken from video, provided by a displaced Rohingya, the scarlet flames that came out from the burning of the houses in the town of Buthidaung in Rakhine state, Myanmar, are seen from a distance on May.17, 2024. (AP Photo)
In this photo taken from video, provided by a displaced Rohingya, the scarlet flames that came out from the burning of the houses in the town of Buthidaung in Rakhine state, Myanmar, are seen from a distance on May.17, 2024. (AP Photo)
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BANGKOK (AP) — A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military government denied accusations that army troops and their local allies killed 76 people when they entered a village last week in the western state of Rakhine, state-controlled media reported Wednesday.

Rakhine has become a focal point for Myanmar’s nationwide civil war, in which pro-democracy guerrillas and ethnic minority armed forces battle the country’s military rulers, who took power in 2021 after the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The fighting there has also raised fears of a revival of organized violence against members of the Muslim Rohingya minority, similar to that which drove at least 740,000 members of their community in 2017 to f lee to neighboring Bangladesh for safety.

The accusations of a massacre in Byine Phyu village in northern Rakhine were made by the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization that has been on the offensive against army outposts in Rakhine since November last year. They have gained control of nine of 17 townships in Rakhine and one in the adjacent Chin state.

Byine Phyu village is on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, in a strategic location with easy access to the Bay of Bengal.

The Arakan Army is the well-trained and well-armed military wing of the political movement of the Buddhist Rakhine minority, which seeks autonomy from Myanmar’s central government.

However, it has also been accused of major human rights violations, most notably in connection with its capture of the town of Buthidaung on May 18. It was accused of forcing the town’s estimated 200,000 residents, mostly from the Rohinyga ethnic minority, to leave and then setting fire to most of the buildings there.

It denies the charges, blaming the army for burning the town, but residents interviewed by phone since the incident told The Associated Press that the Arakan Army was responsible.

The competing claims could not be verified independently, as tight restrictions on travel in that region make it virtually impossible to verify details of such incidents firsthand.

Details of the incident in Byine Phyu village were similarly disputed.

Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, the spokesperson for the ruling military council, was quoted Wednesday in the state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper as saying the army’s troops went to the village on May 29 to look for members of the Arakan Army and detained about 20 people for interrogation.

He said the security forces were forced to shoot three male suspects who were not village residents as they tried to seize a gun from an army officer, but there had not been any mass killing.

An Arakan Army statement released Tuesday said about 170 soldiers from the military regional command headquarters based in Sittwe, accompanied by armed members of a pro-army Rakhine group and local Muslims recruited by the army, arrested everyone in Byine Phyu village and killed 76 people.

It claimed the army raiders treated their captives brutally and raped three women.

Only one of 20 residents from the area contacted by AP was willing to speak about the incident. Several said they would not talk because they were concerned about friends of family members who had been taken into custody.

One woman said her younger brother was among those arrested, but she did not know how many people had been killed or even if her brother was still alive. She spoke on condition on anonymity to safeguard her personal security.

The U.N. human rights office on May 24 warned of “frightening and disturbing reports” about the impact of new violence in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, pointing to new attacks on Rohingya civilians by the military and an ethnic armed group fighting against it.

The fighting in Rakhine has evoked particular concern because it suggests that the Rohingya minority may face new violent persecution.

The Rohingya were the targets of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign incorporating rape and murder that saw an estimated 740,000 flee to neighboring Bangladesh as their villages were burned down by government troops in 2017.

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

After the Arakan Army captured Buthidaung on May 18, Rohingya activists accused it of burning down the houses in the town and forcing its residents to flee. The Arakan Army rejected the allegations as baseless and blamed the destruction on the military government’s troops and local Muslims it said were fighting alongside them.