The Rohingya are on the front lines of Myanmar's civil war

Rohingya / Photo archive

Families of Rohingya people trapped in western Myanmar are desperately trying to contact loved ones after weekend fires forced up to 200.000 people to flee and caused widespread destruction of homes.

The country's Rohingya have long been the target of mass atrocities and forced displacement that many, including UN experts, see as genocide by Myanmar's army. Now the Rohingya have found themselves among the warring parties in an increasingly brutal conflict that has sparked even more violence against the majority Muslim community, reports CNN.

Since taking power in a coup in February 2021, the military has been waging a civil war against ethnic armed groups and popular resistance forces across Myanmar.

In western Rakhine state, the Arakan Army, a powerful ethnic minority armed group fighting Myanmar's military junta, claims it has captured a predominantly Rohingya town near the border with Bangladesh.

There have been reports from activists and residents of Arakan that soldiers have torched and looted Rohingya homes in the town of Buthidaung, preventing people from returning home, confiscating cellphones and threatening to kill those who try to contact family abroad. .

The junta-imposed blackout of the internet and telecommunications in the country makes it impossible for relatives to talk to family members there, and for journalists, activists and international monitoring groups to find out exactly what is happening.

Poet Farooq, who lives as a refugee in neighboring Bangladesh, told CNN that most of his family is still in Buthidaung, but he has been unable to reach them since Saturday.

"Then my son-in-law told me that my family was displaced and my home was burnt by the Arakan army," Farooq said.

Rohingya rights activists and former officials said about 200.000 people had been forced from their homes by the fires and that many, including women and children, had spent several nights hiding in open rice fields without food or medicine. There is also information about an unconfirmed number of victims.

CNN cannot independently confirm these reports, but satellite images show large fires engulfing downtown Buthidaung on Saturday morning and continuing to burn over the weekend.

Remote sensing data collected by NASA's Fire Information Resource Management System suggests the fires spread in the early hours of the morning, while satellite images collected by space technology company Maxar show widespread destruction across Buthidaung that day.

"The whole city is burning. A few houses have been left intact, just a few,” said Nay San Lwin, an activist originally from Buthidaung and co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition.

The violence is reminiscent of attacks on the stateless Rohingya community in 2016 and 2017, when Myanmar's military launched a brutal campaign of killings, rapes and arson that is currently the subject of a genocide investigation at the International Court of Justice.

An estimated one million Rohingya now live in the world's largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, after hundreds of thousands fled military "clearance operations".

Many of those who remain in Myanmar live in apartheid-like conditions and face severe restrictions on movement, education and health care.

The army and government in Rakhine State's capital have held more than 100.000 Rohingya in displacement camps for the past 10 years. Others took perilous boat trips to Indonesia, choosing to risk their lives at sea rather than endure inhumane conditions at home.

Young Rohingya men also face forced recruitment by the junta, the Arakan Army and armed Rohingya rebel groups, both in Myanmar and in camps in Bangladesh, where gang violence has escalated.

Experts from the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar warned on Sunday that the Rohingya are again at risk of genocide and called on the UN Human Rights Council to convene a special session to address the worsening human rights situation in Myanmar.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Turk said on Sunday that "this is a critical period, when the risk of new crimes is particularly acute".

Fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Army erupted in November after a shaky ceasefire collapsed. The Arakan Army has made significant territorial gains in Rakhine state in recent months, announcing last week that it had taken control of all junta military bases around Buthidaung, as well as the city itself.

Aung Kyaw Moe, an adviser on Rohingya in Myanmar's shadow government of national unity - a successor to the administration ousted in a coup - wrote on Saturday that the Arakan Army had ordered residents to leave the city in the days before the attack.

Buthidaung's population has swelled in recent weeks as residents of surrounding villages flee the fighting.

Nay San Lwin of the Rohingya Free Coalition – who managed to talk to several residents of Buthidaung – said that at 21:30 local time17. On May 10, Arakan Army soldiers entered the town and soon after began burning houses. Reports also suggest that junta airstrikes and artillery hit Buthidaung on the same day.

"I asked them who is leading the burning." "They said members of the Arakan Army came into the town and started shooting in the air and warning people to come out of their houses or they would be burned alive," Lwin said.

John Quinley, director of human rights group Fortify Rights, said it was clear destruction of civilian infrastructure, including civilian homes.

"In Buthidaung, the junta has been carrying out artillery shelling and airstrikes over the past few days, and the Arakan Army carried out arson over the weekend," Quinley said.

Arakan Army spokesman Kaing Tu Ka wrote on Telegram on Friday evening that the armed group was "evacuating Muslim communities in Buthidaung and providing them with food, shelter and medical care, including children, women and the elderly."

The Arakan Army has denied setting fire to the city, saying in a May 20 statement that it adheres to its principles of combat under the military code of conduct and never targets non-military facilities. It has blamed Myanmar's military, along with allied Rohingya militant groups - which it calls "Bengali terrorists" - for the destruction of Buthidaung.

The army claims that on May 17, the Myanmar military carried out a sustained airstrike on Buthidaung village until midnight. An earlier statement by the Arakan Army from late April said the homes of non-Muslims living in Butidaung were torched in attacks by "junta-backed Bengali Muslim terrorist groups and other Muslim militants recently armed and trained by the junta".

Farooq, whose family was forced to flee the fire, says the Arakan Army has torched Rohingya villages and homes. At that time there were no active battles with the army. “When my family home was burned and my mother had to leave the village, there was no fighting in Buthidaung. "There is no army there, no base, no junta," Farooq said.

He said Arakan Army soldiers had warned residents there not to contact people living abroad and that anyone caught with a Bangladeshi SIM card would be executed. Nay San Lwin claims to have heard reports of Arakan Army soldiers taking money and mobile phones from fleeing Rohingya: “They fear they have footage of them burning their houses.

Buthidaung residents have been exposed to increased violence by junta forces in recent weeks, rights groups say. Satellite images from Planet Labs obtained by CNN show western neighborhoods were hit by fire in mid-April, and the Pan Zin Chaung Bridge - a key artery on the city's eastern edge - was destroyed before Friday's arson.

The humanitarian offices of Doctors Without Borders in the city were set on fire on April 15.

"We are receiving reports of more than 200 homes that have been burned and we are witnessing thousands of people displaced by the violence, seeking shelter in the area right across from our office," MSF said at the time.

This is how a humanitarian crisis arose in Rakhine state, where refugee residents have no access to food or clean water.

"There are no non-governmental organizations at all, who will distribute food to them?" Myanmar's army blocked all access. They also imprison people in these villages. They are not allowed to leave,” Ney San Lwin said.

The violence has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and the international community, which have called for an end to the fighting, the protection of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Rakhine.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US was deeply troubled by reports of increased violence in Rakhine state and warned there were risks of new crimes.

"Past acts of genocide and other crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, along with a history of fueling intercommunal tensions in Rakhine State and elsewhere around the country, underscore the grave danger to civilians," Miller said.

Myanmar's government of national unity said on Tuesday it recognized that shameful actions and failures in Myanmar had allowed horrific crimes to be committed against minority communities, including the Rohingya: "We will ensure that these crimes never happen again."

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