Myanmar’s government rejects charges of slaughtering 76 villagers

A representative for Burma’s military government has denied allegations made by the Arakan Army, claiming that army forces and their local allies did not kill 76 individuals during their entrance into a village within the western state of Rakhine last week. These accusations were reported by state-controlled media on Wednesday.

Rakhine has become a central point in Burma’s national civil war, where guerrilla fighters advocating for democracy and ethnic minority armed forces are battling against the country’s military leaders. These leaders seized power in 2021 following the ousting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government by the military.

Fighting in Rakhine has also heightened concerns regarding a resurgence of systematic violence against members of the Rohingya community. Such violence had previously caused around 740,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017 seeking refuge.

The claims of a massacre in the village of Byine Phyu in northern Rakhine were raised by the Arakan Army, an armed ethnic group that has engaged in offensive maneuvers against military outposts in Rakhine since last November. This group has seized control of nine out of 17 townships in Rakhine as well as one in the neighboring Chin state.

Byine Phyu village is situated on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, holding a strategic location that offers easy access to the Bay of Bengal.

The Arakan Army stands as the well-trained and equipped military wing of the political movement representing the Buddhist Rakhine minority, who seek autonomy from Burma’s central government.

However, this army has also faced accusations of committing significant human rights violations, particularly in correlation with its capture of the town of Buthidaung on May 18. They are alleged to have forcibly displaced the town’s estimated 200,000 residents, chiefly from the Rohingya ethnic minority, and subsequently set fire to most structures there.

The army refutes these accusations, attributing the town’s burning to the military. Nevertheless, residents contacted by phone following the incident maintain that the Arakan Army was responsible.

Due to stringent travel restrictions in the region, independent verification of these competing claims has proven unfeasible, making it virtually impossible to confirm the specifics of such incidents firsthand. Details of the incident in Byine Phyu village have also been disputed similarly.

On Wednesday, the state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper cited Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the ruling military council, who stated that army troops had entered the village on May 29 in search of Arakan Army members, subsequently detaining around 20 individuals for interrogation.

He explained that security forces were compelled to shoot three male suspects who were not village residents after they attempted to seize a gun from an army officer, emphasizing that there had been no mass killing.

A statement released by the Arakan Army on Tuesday claimed that around 170 soldiers from the military regional command headquarters situated in Sittwe, joined by armed members of a pro-army Rakhine group and locally recruited Muslims, had apprehended all inhabitants of Byine Phyu village and killed 76 people.

It further alleged that the army raiders had treated their captives with brutality and had committed rape against three women.

Out of 20 local residents contacted by the AP, only one was ready to speak about the incident. Several refused to comment due to concerns about the well-being of family or friends who had been taken into custody.

One woman disclosed that her younger brother had been detained, but she remained uncertain about the number of fatalities or even her brother’s current situation. She requested anonymity to protect her personal safety.

On May 24, the UN human rights office expressed concern regarding “appalling and distressing reports” on the repercussions of renewed violence within Rakhine, highlighting fresh attacks against Rohingya civilians by the military and an opposing ethnic armed group.

The fighting in Rakhine has sparked particular apprehension as it suggests that the Rohingya minority could face further violent persecution.

The Rohingya were subjected to a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in 2017, involving rape and murder, which resulted in approximately 740,000 fleeing to Bangladesh as their villages were incinerated by government forces. Despite having lived in Burma for generations, they are widely perceived by the nation’s Buddhist majority, particularly members of the Rakhine minority, as illegal migrants. The Rohingya encounter widespread discrimination and are generally denied citizenship and basic rights.

Following the Arakan Army’s seizure of Buthidaung on May 18, Rohingya activists accused the army of setting houses ablaze and coercing residents to flee. The Arakan Army refuted these allegations as baseless and attributed the destruction to troops of the military government and local Muslims who they claimed fought alongside them.