In Myanmar, a New Threat for the Rohingya

International courts are still investigating the Myanmar military’s slaughter of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017 that the United States has called a genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh and those who stayed faced persecution from the junta. Now a new threat to the group is looming, this time at the hands of a powerful rebel force.

That force, the Arakan Army, has won control of large parts of Rakhine State in Myanmar over the past few months, most recently the northern section where many Rohingya still live. In recent days, rights groups have accused the rebels of expelling the minority from their homes and destroying their property, in many cases by arson. The Arakan Army has rejected these allegations.

The sectarian tensions underscore the complex ethnic makeup, and rivalries, of Myanmar. In Rakhine State, an impoverished strip of land in the west of the country previously known as Arakan, many ethnic Buddhist Rakhine have long sought to break away from Myanmar and its Bamar majority. They also have often disregarded the plight of another group living alongside them that was falsely rejected as interlopers from Bangladesh, and troublemakers: the Rohingya.

Formed roughly 15 years ago, the Arakan Army claims to be 40,000 people strong and has fought Myanmar’s military for years. It has grown to be among the most powerful of the various ethnic rebel armies that are allied by the joint desire to oust the junta — which staged a coup in 2021 and is now facing the biggest challenge to its rule from rebel and pro-democracy forces.

Reports of the Arakan Army mistreating the Rohingya have stirred fears of renewed atrocities, even as the junta appears increasingly weak.

“Arakan Army soldiers told us to move to a safer place, as there is intense fighting in our town and there was a risk for us. Before we could decide whether to move or not, the house caught fire,” said Aung Htay, 42, a Rohingya resident of Buthidaung, one of the biggest towns to be largely destroyed by fire. Speaking in a telephone interview, he said he did not know what caused the fires in the town, which broke out after dark.

In interviews, nine other residents of the surrounding area said that in recent weeks houses were burned and residents forced to leave. It remained unclear who was responsible for the violence, but there were signs of Arakan Army involvement.

“We’ve interviewed numerous witnesses who stated that A.A. troops were in control of Buthidaung town the evening of May 17, when widespread arson attacks took place,” said Shayna Bauchner, an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, referring to the Arakan Army by its initials.

The United Nations also said the fires were burning after the Myanmar military had retreated from locations, and that tens of thousands of Rakhine and Rohingya people across the state had been displaced by the conflict. Some have gone to neighboring Bangladesh, where roughly a million Rohingya had already fled in previous years in fear for their lives, settling in refugee camps there.

But Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya refugees to work and move freely, and the conditions in the camps have become increasingly dire.

While on a visit to one of those camps on Friday, Asaduzzaman Khan, Bangladesh’s minister of home affairs, told local news media that no more people from Myanmar would be allowed into his country.

The Arakan Army has also been previously accused by rights groups of abuses against the Buddhist Rakhine population it purports to represent. A representative for the group rejected the allegations of wrongdoing.

“We do not engage in burning down houses,” Khaing Thu Kha, a spokesman for the group, said in a phone call, instead putting the blame for the fires on the Myanmar junta. Military officials could not be reached for comment.

He also denied allegations that the rebel force displaced civilians. “The Arakan Army has never forced anyone to move. But we might have advised people to leave because it was not safe in the war zone.”

Some of the Arakan Army’s social media posts have a less cordial tone. Although the Rohingya are called “friends” and “fellow citizens,” Twan Mrat Naing, the commander of the Arakan Army, also refers to the Muslim minority as “Bengalis,” a term that is widely considered a slur, implying the Rohingya are infiltrators from Bangladesh with no rights in Myanmar.

In a more incendiary statement on X, he accused Rohingya activists of wanting to establish a “separate Islamic safe zone,” an assertion that the activists rejected in a statement.

The allegations against the Arakan Army are unfolding against the backdrop of reports that Rohingya have been conscripted into Myanmar’s military and joined troops in raiding Rakhine villages. Human Rights Watch believes that more than a thousand Rohingya men have been forcibly recruited since February.

Alarmed by the renewed sectarian tensions, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has warned of an “acute risk of further atrocities.”

In a joint statement, Rohingya activists urged the Arakan Army leadership not to fall into the military’s trap of playing divide and conquer by trying to pit the two communities against each other. “Only the military regime will benefit from this,” groups including the European Rohingya Council and Burmese Rohingya Organization UK said in the statement.

Sectarian tensions have a long history in Rakhine State. In World War II, the Rakhine were aligned with the Japanese and the Rohingya with the British. The Rohingya were persecuted by the military junta that seized power in 1962 and eventually declared stateless. Hundreds of people from both Rakhine and Rohingya communities died in clashes in 2012. In 2016 and 2017, when more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh, ethnic Rakhine people were accused of having helped kill their Muslim neighbors, an operation that has since been formally labeled a genocide by the U.S. State Department.

“The Myanmar military is still trying to create ethnic and religious problems. When they lose, they tend to create such conflicts, so we need to be careful,” said U Aung Thaung Shwe, a former Rakhine member of Parliament representing Buthidaung. He said that his house was set on fire, too, and that he doesn’t know who is responsible.

Now the Rohingya are forced to choose a side in a conflict in which neither one is standing up for their rights. They are also squeezed by their own armed groups, which are accused of forcibly enlisting Rohingya youth in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

“The dynamics on the ground might be complex, but one thing is simple: The Rohingya are again being used,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent Myanmar rights activist.

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