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Myanmar: Unlawful attacks resulting in mass casualties to civilians and destruction of infrastructure in Rakhine State must end

May 24th, 2024  •  Author:   International Commission of Jurists  •  5 minute read
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The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) today condemned the escalation of atrocities against the inhabitants of Buthidaung Township in Rakhine State. The ICJ called on all parties to the ongoing armed conflict in Rakhine State to respect international humanitarian law and cease unlawful operations in the conduct of hostilities.

On 17 May 2024, widespread arson attacks were reported in Buthidaung Township, which has a predominantly Rohingya population. Satellite imagery reveals that large parts of the town have been destroyed by fire. The fires caused the extensive destruction of homes and reportedly forced tens of thousands of civilians, mainly Rohingya, to flee their homes.

Reports indicate that the already besieged Rohingya population has been particularly affected and remains at enormous risk.

“Allegations of widespread burning and destruction of homes and other direct, indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, if substantiated, would violate international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes,” said Melissa Upreti, ICJ Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “They require independent, prompt and impartial investigations, with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice.”

All parties to the armed conflict are bound by international humanitarian law.

There are competing accounts of who bears responsibility for these arson attacks in Buthidaung Township. Neither the ICJ or any other authoritative source publicly commenting has been able to independently verify the veracity of these competing claims, exacerbated by the ongoing military-imposed internet shutdown and communications blackout across Rakhine State. The arbitrary shutdowns on internet and mobile connections in Rakhine State and across Myanmar prevent even rudimentary monitoring of the situation, helping to conceal responsibilities for atrocity crimes and abet the possible destruction of evidence.

“We are gravely concerned about the suppression of information and real risk of past atrocities being repeated, particularly against the Rohingya who have faced decades of systematic persecution and discrimination, with the conflict looking to intensify further across Rakhine State,” added Upreti.

There have been recent patterns of widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses being committed against the Rohingya community since the escalation of the conflict in Rakhine State in November 2023. These come only a few years after the findings by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar confirming acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Rohingya population.

Credible reports have emerged of young Rohingya men facing forcible recruitment from the military junta, Arakan Army and armed Rohingya groups through coercion, bribery and exploitation. There has also been an alleged spread of disinformation and unlawful hate speech against Rohingya Muslims, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warningof the spread of similar “hateful narratives that fuelled communal violence in 2012 and the horrendous attacks against the Rohingya in 2017”.

The ICJ reiterates that the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar military) continued disregard for human rights and the rule of law has created a climate of near absolute impunity for the widespread and systematic perpetration of grave human rights violations and abuses both by them and other armed groups and non-state actors, including those amounting to serious crimes under international law.

The ICJ urges all armed actors to prioritize the protection of the lives, safety and needs of civilians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, in Rakhine State as well as across Myanmar. All parties to the conflict must also facilitate humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict, with the worsening humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State as a result of those forcibly displaced being unable to access food, safe water and sanitation, housing and healthcare.

The ICJ also calls for an immediate emergency response by responsible UN bodies and Member States before the situation in Rakhine State escalates even further. This must include calls by Member States for immediate restoration of internet and mobile access in Rakhine State to reveal the situation on the ground and a prompt investigation by international accountability and human rights mechanisms into potential crimes under international law that may have been committed in Buthidaung Township and other affected areas.

Contact

Melissa Upreti, ICJ Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, e: [email protected]

Daron Tan, ICJ Associate International Legal Adviser, e: [email protected]

Background

Armed conflict in Rakhine State between multiple actors, including the Myanmar military, Arakan Army and Rohingya armed groups, has intensified since November 2023, after the suspension of a ceasefire agreement in place since the February 2021 military coup.

While testimonies have emerged accusing the Arakan Army for being responsible for the arson attacks in Buthidaung Township, the Arakan Army has denied responsibility and accused airstrikes from the Myanmar military and its allies for starting the fires. The Arakan Army claimed control of Buthidaung Township on 19 May.

Reports indicate that the Arakan Army’s troops have advanced into Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State in recent days.

Across Myanmar, the intensifying conflict has resulted in the displacement of more than three million people according to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar. More than 90% fled as a result of the conflict triggered by the coup, with this figure having spiked sharply in the past six months due to the escalating of fighting in many parts of the country.


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