Since the start of the ongoing large-scale “clearance” operation against the Rohingya population by Burmese security forces, the Burmese government’s Information Committee and state media have consistently reported that the operation is a response to over 30 coordinated “extremist terrorist” attacks against police stations and outposts in northern Rakhine State on August 25, 2017.
The government version of these attacks, allegedly timed by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) to undermine the August 24 release of the final Kofi Annan Commission report, has been accepted unquestioningly by Burmese and international media. Foreign embassies have condemned the attacks and expressed sympathy with the Burmese government for losses sustained. Analysts have also been quick to conclude that the scale of the ARSA attacks, across the length of Maungdaw Township, as well as in Rathedaung and Buthidaung, is evidence of support from international Islamic terrorist groups.
However, interviews by Kaladan Press with new refugee arrivals in Bangladesh throw into serious doubt the government’s version of events. Their testimony provides evidence that the military clearance operation was carefully pre-planned, and that many, if not all, of the ARSA attacks may simply have been fabricated as a pretext for the assault.
Refugees described a state of extreme security lockdown in northern Rakhine prior to August 25, with thousands of Burmese troops deployed to reinforce Border Guard Police posts, each already guarded by up to a hundred armed, combat-ready police personnel. Naval vessels were also brought in along the coast, with troops patrolling the shore. The security forces’ immediate, coordinated response on August 25 in attacking and destroying Rohingya villages in a similar pattern throughout the length of northern Rakhine, suggests strongly that the operation was planned in advance and authorized at the highest levels. Even villages where no alleged ARSA attacks took place were invaded and razed by security forces early on August 25. All refugees testified there was absolutely no attempt to identify “terrorists” during the clearance operations.
Heavy weapons were fired at villages, including from navy ships off the Rathedaung coast. Civilians were shot at indiscriminately, elderly and children slaughtered, women raped, and villages deliberately emptied and burned down. Kaladan Press interviewed refugees from fifteen locations allegedly attacked by ARSA, and none had seen any sign of ARSA militants carrying out attacks. Most said they had simply heard gunfire from the direction of police posts early in the morning of August 25, and then security forces began indiscriminately attacking their communities. Some had heard no sound at all from the police posts allegedly attacked. Refugees were incredulous that groups of militants could have approached any of the police posts supposedly attacked, given the level of military security, and the existing severe restrictions on Rohingya movements at the village level.
Refugees from Ale Than Kyaw, Udaung and Myinlut, south of Maungdaw - where thousands of ARSA militants are alleged to have attacked police posts – said this was impossible, given the hundreds of troops on security alert around their villages, and the proximity of the large new Udaung military base at the foot of the Mayu mountain range, housing over 1,000 troops.
The testimony of over 60 new refugee arrivals has been compiled in this analysis paper, laying out evidence that challenges the Burmese government’s version of the events of August 25 and their portrayal of ARSA as a dangerous terrorist threat. With the entire brutal clearance operation predicated upon the alleged ARSA attacks, it is time to start asking questions about what really happened on August 25.
Large-scale Burmese military build-up in northern Rakhine prior to August 25
The reports that ARSA attacked 30 “police posts” on August 25 give the misleading impression that ARSA targeted poorly defended public security outposts. In fact, these were posts of the Border Guard Police (BGP), a military-trained force comprising thousands of armed, combatready personnel (who wear blue uniforms, usually camouflaged, distinct from the plain green uniforms of the Burma Army). The posts allegedly attacked included larger well-fortified BGP police stations, manned by up to 100 BGP members, as well as smaller, but also welldefended, BGP outposts. The BGP posts were not only guarded by their own armed personnel, but also by regular Burma Army troops, thousands of which had been deployed throughout the northern Rakhine border area shortly before August 25.
Naval forces were also deployed along the Rathedaung coast. Refugees interviewed by Kaladan Press provided information about existing troop strength and increased troop deployment in and near areas allegedly attacked by ARSA in Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung on August 25.
Thousands of troops deployed to Buthidaung
There are numerous permanent army bases around Buthidaung township, but the two bases closest to alleged ARSA attack sites on August 25, are Battalion 552 (about 2 miles east of the Taung Bazar BGP post allegedly attacked), and 564 (about a mile southeast of the Phaungtawpyin BGP post allegedly attacked).
The 552 camp itself was also allegedly attacked by ARSA. In the weeks leading up to August 25, according to a Rohingya dock worker from the town of Buthidaung, thousands of Burma Army troops arrived by boat from the south along the Mayu River. They arrived at night, in boatloads of hundreds at a time. He thought they were coming from the Burma Army base in Nyaung Chaung (southern Buthidaung) as well as from Rathedaung, and other areas of Rakhine State via Sittwe. Some of them were likely mobile strike forces of Infantry Divisions 33 and 99 (based in Sagaing and Meiktila respectively, and notorious for rights violations in northern Burma), which according to media reports had been flown to Sittwe on August 10, and which were seen by Kaladan Press sources arriving by road – From Sittwe through Rathedaung crossing the ferry to Maungdaw - in Maungdaw in midAugust. Villagers from Taung Bazar said there were usually about 200 troops at the nearby 552 army camp (allegedly attacked by ARSA) and that five trucks of reinforcements had arrived from Buthidaung to the camp early in the morning of August 23. The same day, about 70 troops had walked from the 552 camp to the Taung Bazar middle school, and set up camp there. Some had also installed themselves in the local madrassa.
This was in addition to the existing large BGP camp at Taung Bazar market, where about 100 BGP members were permanently stationed. A villager living near Phaungtawpyin said there were usually about 200 soldiers at the Battalion 564 camp. He said that after the October 2016 violence, a new BGP camp had been set up in the Phaungtawpyin high school, where about 15 BGP troops stayed. On August 24, about 15 Burma Army troops had come from Battalion 564 to reinforce this BGP camp, and the same evening, about 30 more Burma Army troops had come from Battalion 552 to join the camp, thereby increasing fourfold the usual troop strength guarding the Phaungtawpyin BGP camp. The two police posts in Buthidaung allegedly attacked by ARSA had thus been significantly reinforced from the nearby Burma Army camps just days before August 25. In the morning of August 25, about 100 troops walked from the direction of the large Tactical Operations Command (TOC), west of Buthidaung, and laid land mines near Sin Oo Pyin – one mile north of the Buthidaung town - and began shooting villagers, showing that troops in the TOC were already in place to launch operations.
Troop and naval deployment on the Rathedaung coast
Kaladan Press has interviewed several refugees from Basara village, near Cheinkali, on the western Rathedaung coast, about two miles south of the Koetankauk police post allegedly attacked by ARSA on August 25. The refugees said that there was a BGP post at Cheinkali, where Burma Army troops were stationed, and where more were deployed about five days before August 25, at the same time that about five large Navy boats were seen arriving from the south, off the shore close to their village. Villagers were forbidden from accessing the shore to fish, and naval and army personnel were seen patrolling on foot along the shore. The naval vessels remained until August 25 (when they were seen firing shells towards the shore).
Troop deployment throughout Maungdaw
There are two permanent military camps in Maungdaw: Waesali Natala village near the “3- Mile” post, east of Maungdaw on the road to Buthidaung, and one at Udaung, about 10 miles south of Maungdaw. Several thousand troops are based at these two camps. In the town of Maungdaw, a temporary army camp had been set up in 2016 in the Dhamma Yone monastery compound, housing over 100 troops and same number are stationed at State Middle School, near Clock tower of Maungdaw- LIBs 345. A refugee from Udaung reported being told by a local administration officer that the new army camp at Udaung, set up about four years ago but still under construction, housed 2,500 troops.
He said he had seen about 1,000 troops there. He had once delivered food to workers inside the camp, and said it was heavily fortified, with a large concrete lined “cave” built into the Mayu mountainside. Although the Udaung military camp was not listed by the government as having been attacked by ARSA on August 25, a police post in Udaung “Natala” village (housing nonRohingya villagers) only half a mile away was listed, raising questions about why a target so close to a huge military installation should have been chosen. Refugees from northern and southern Maungdaw described how hundreds of troops had been deployed to reinforce BGP camps in their areas before August 25, many on August 24 itself. This included areas allegedly attacked by ARSA, as well as those where no attacks were alleged to have taken place.
The new military camp at Udaung, south of Maungdaw
The BGP Region 7 headquarter camp in Ale Than Kyaw, about 10 miles south of Maungdaw town, usually manned by about 25 police, had been reinforced with about 200 Burma Army troops by August 25. About 100 of these troops had arrived by truck and on foot from Maungdaw on August 24.
Nearby at Myinlut, villagers said that over 100 troops from the Udaung Army camp had reinforced the BGP camp by August 25. Further south, at Inn Din, refugees described how on August 24 about 200 combat-ready Burmese troops had arrived on foot at the BGP post in their village, usually manned by about 50 BGP personnel. A further 60 troops were also seen arriving on foot from the hills in the east in the morning of August 25.
In northern Maungdaw, refugees from Kyein Chaung said that the BGP post in their village, already housing about 100 Burma Army troops, was reinforced by another 100 troops in the evening of August 24, who arrived by truck from Maungdaw. About eight miles further north, the BGP post in Tamantha, usually staffed by about 10 police, was reinforced by about 100 Burma Army troops on August 24.
Refugees from Kuntheepin, about two miles south of Taungpyo (on the Bangladesh border only two miles east of Kutupalong refugee camp), said that about 5 trucks of army troops came from Taungpyo came to their village early on August 25, and began shelling and shooting at them. This means that at least 100 troops were ready and waiting in Taungpyo (the location of the BGP Region 3 headquarters) by August 25.
Existing security lockdown for Rohingya in northern Rakhine
The movement and daily activity of Rohingya in northern Rakhine was already severely restricted even before the recent troop reinforcement. For years, restrictions had been in place, requiring Rohinyga to get written permission and pass multiple checkpoints to travel between village tracts (any Rohingya riding vehicles had to get down from the vehicles and walk past the checkpoints), and even to get permission to visit neighbours’ houses in their own villages in the evenings (in case they were reported by informers as plotting unrest).
Rohingya men were also forbidden from going out into the sea in fishing boats to exercise their traditional fishing livelihoods. After the first brutal clearance operations by the Burmese security forces in October 2016, restrictions had worsened. Fences around house compounds were torn down, so that security forces could more easily monitor villagers’ activities and quickly access their houses. A village elder from Ngayanchaung in northern Maungdaw said that after October 2016, all long knives and long-handled farming tools (which could be used as weapons) had to be handed in to the local Border Guard Police, on penalty of fines. This had caused great difficulty for local farmers and woodcutters in carrying out their daily livelihoods.
In recent months villagers had been subjected to increased searches and spot checks by security personnel. A refugee from Laungdon in northern Maungdaw, said her husband and thirteen other villagers had been arrested by soldiers during a spot check on the road in early August 2017. He had since disappeared. Pressure on Rohingya to apply for National Verification Cards (NVC), which designate them as foreigners, had also been increased shortly before the August 25 attacks.
Villagers living outside Maungdaw and trying to travel into the town to go to market were told at the checkpoints that they could only pass if they had NVC cards.
Burmese military and naval attacks launched early on August 25 against villages where there was no pretext of ARSA attacks
The ARSA attacks early on August 25 were the supposed pretext for the subsequent Burmese military operation against the “terrorists.”
However, Kaladan Press has interviewed refugees from eight villages who said Burmese security forces launched attacks against them in the morning of August 25, even though the government did not allege there were ARSA attacks in their villages. One such village was Inn Din, in southern Maungdaw, where 200 Burmese Army troops had arrived at the local BGP outpost on August 24. Refugees described hearing gunshots from the BGP post firing at their village at about 3 am on August 25. BGP and Burma Army troops then came into the village, together with local non-Rohingya villagers, shooting and burning houses, causing everyone to flee. Villagers were shot and killed as they fled. One refugee interviewed from Inn Din was a 25-year-old woman, who was 7 months pregnant and unable to run away in time. She was holding her 18-month-old baby when she ran into a BGP soldier, who pushed her over, pulled the baby from her arms, knifed it to death, and then stamped on her stomach. She crawled to the jungle and miscarried there.
Another refugee, a truck driver, who was sleeping in his truck by the roadside in Inn Din on the night of August 24, said he woke up to hear a whistle being blown at the Inn Din BGP camp at about 3 am, after which shooting began. This suggests that the whistle was a pre-arranged signal to begin the attack on the village. Another village attacked in the morning of August 25 was Done Baik, in northern Maungdaw, where the nearby BGP post in Kyein Chaung had been reinforced by about 200 Burma Army troops. There was no ARSA attack alleged against this BGP post, but at about 10 am, security forces and local non-Rohingya villagers armed with knives surrounded Done Baik village and began setting fire to houses.
As people began running away, they were shot or killed with knives. A group of about 300 villagers who had run into an empty field were cornered, and made to sit down with their hands behind their heads. About 20 young women were separated from the group and taken into empty houses by some of the troops. An hour later, these women were taken to one of the houses, locked in and then burned alive. Other villagers could hear their screams. Then they started burning the other houses, spraying the people in the field with gunfire. Out of those in the field, only about a quarter – mostly young men and boys - could run away. It is estimated that over 200 of the others, mainly women and children, died.
A villager from Nga Yan Chaung, said that the BGP at the Let Ya BGP post near their village began shooting without provocation at people coming to market in the morning of August 25. He knew of seven young men who had been killed on that day. Other villages in northern Maungdaw where refugees described attacks by Burmese security forces early on August 25, even though the military had not alleged there were ARSA attacks in their villages, were Me Te, Thinguja Para, and Ludaing. In Buthidaung, a refugee from Sin Oo Pyin, a mile north of Buthidaung town (and four miles south of Phaungtawpyin, where an ARSA attack was alleged by the government to have taken place), said that a column of about 100 troops approached his village from the south, at 10 am on August 25. They were seen laying land mines along the road close to their village. They then surrounded the village, and arrested four farmers coming back from their fields. When the farmers’ relatives and other villagers came out to oppose this, saying “If you are going to arrest these men, then arrest all of us,” the soldiers opened fire. 16 people were killed, and 24 injured.
On the Rathedaung sea coast, a woman from Basara (about one mile south of Koetankauk, alleged by the government to have been attacked by ARSA on August 25) described how guns and shells began being fired at her village at 5:15 am on August 25. She said she looked out to the sea and saw several big Navy boats firing shells (“like fireballs”) in the direction of her village. She said the shells exploded and burst into flame.
A shell landed near her house and her 10-year-old son was injured by shrapnel in the leg. She thinks about 20 people were killed in her village. When they ran out to the mountains, army and BGP soldiers (from the nearby Cheinkali BGP post) shot at them, and non-Rohingya villagers attacked people with knives. No sign of ARSA members in villages where police posts were allegedly attacked In “Breaking News” releases no. 1 and 2, dated August 25, 2017, the government’s Information Committee listed details of 32 attacks on police posts and one army base, which had taken place early on August 25. (See Appendix for the full list). Kaladan Press has spoken to refugees from fifteen of the villages or town quarters where the alleged attacks took place and none had seen any sign of ARSA members carrying out attacks. Most said they had heard sounds of gunfire coming one-sidedly from police posts early in the morning of August 25, after which their villages were attacked by Burmese security forces. Some did not even hear any sound of gunfire at the police posts before their villages were attacked.
For example, the alleged ARSA attack on the BGP’s police post at Tamantha, northern Maungdaw township, was described by the government’s Information Committee as follows: “At 4:30 am (on August 25, 2017), an unidentified number of extremist terrorists attacked Tamantha police outpost in Region-2.”
According to a refugee who fled from Tamantha, there was no sign or sound of an ARSA attack early in the morning of August 25. He said that on August 24, about 100 Burmese Army troops had reinforced the BGP post, and in the morning of August 25, at 8.30 am, these troops, together with BGP forces and local militia, began breaking into and looting Rohingya shops in the market. In response, a group of about 100 local Rohingya men came out to defend their property, but they were not armed. The troops fired at them, killing at least one man, and wounding another. They then starting setting fire to Rohingya houses, and large numbers of villagers started fleeing to the mountains west of the village. At least four villagers were shot and killed as they fled. That day, over 50 houses near the market section of the village were burned down. On August 28, the remaining estimated 600 Rohingya houses in the other sections of the village were burned down (even though all the Rohingya residents had already fled).
In Ale Than Kyaw, about ten miles south of Maungdaw town, the government claimed that “At 4:50 am, an unidentified number of extremist terrorists attacked Ale Than Kyaw police station in Region-8, leaving Deputy Township Immigration Officer Zar Moung dead. The policemen repulsed the terrorists who retreated from the scene.” According to a Burmese police lieutenant interviewed by BBC about the Ale Than Kyaw incident, “two groups of around 500 men each stormed up from the beach…but were easily driven off by police officers firing automatic weapons. Seventeen bodies were left behind.”
However, refugees from Ale Than Kyaw said there was no sign of the alleged 1,000 attackers. They said the local BGP post had been reinforced by 200 Burma Army troops, and the whole village was in security lockdown. At 11 pm on the night of August 24, one BGP and one Army officer had visited the house of the village administrative officer and demanded that “bad people” sheltering in the village be handed over, but the administrative officer had replied, “Our village is next to your camp, how can those men be here?” Early in the morning, shots were heard from the BGP post, but according to one refugee, an elderly fishing broker, the only people coming from the beach were 12 fishermen who had gone out early to fish along the shore (as fishing by boat in the sea was banned). They were shot and killed on the road from the beach, near the BGP post. After this, the troops began firing directly at the village and burning houses. Refugees estimate that about 100 people were killed.
About one and a half miles east of Ale Than Kyaw, another ARSA attack was alleged to have taken place on August 25 at Udaung (Natala) village. According to the government, “At 5:10 am, about 100 extremist terrorists attacked Udaung (Natala) outpost in Region-8, where they were met with a police repulse, prompting them to retreat at 6 am.” Refugees from Ale Than Kyaw were incredulous that a large group of ARSA could have got inside the Natala village (inhabited by Rakhine Buddhists and completely off-limits for Rohingya) and staged an attack right next to the large Udaung military base, where over a thousand troops were based.
Precisely at the time when the ARSA attack was alleged to have taken place at Udaung (Natala) village, at 5 am on August 25, residents of the Rohingya section of Udaung said that they were attacked without warning. Gunfire and shells began raining on their houses. “People were hiding, trying to make their own bunkers. I saw people being hit by bullets around me,” said an 18-year-old villager from Udaung. He said he hid in the jungle nearby until September 4th, when his house was burned down.
Another large ARSA attack allegedly took place at Myinlut, just four miles south of the Udaung military base, where the Information Committee reported that “At 4:45 am, about 1,000 extremist terrorists attacked Myinlut police station in Region-8, leaving Police Major Hein Htet Kaw and police constable Win Htike dead and one BA-94 and one .38 revolver taken.”
However, refugees from Myinlut said they had seen no sign of the 1,000 ARSA attackers. Several villagers said they heard gunshots at about 3.30 am from the direction of the BGP camp (already reinforced by over 100 troops), then at about 7 am the army (refugees said they saw only green uniforms) began sweeping through the village, shooting at villagers. Those living near the BGP camp fled to other parts of the village, or to nearby fields and mountainside. They said most of the houses in the village were burned down over the course of the next four days. Similarly in Laungdon, northern Maungdaw, where the BGP post was allegedly attacked at 3.25 am by “extremist terrorists,” villagers said they heard some gunfire early in the morning of August 25 from the Laungdon post, but saw no sign of ARSA attackers.
However, at midday on August 25, hundreds of troops arrived by truck and on foot, and together with the BGP and local non-Rohingya villagers began attacking their village. People fled for their lives, hiding in fields and jumping into the Purma river. One refugee estimated that 10 villagers had been shot and wounded when running away. Five ARSA attacks were alleged to have taken place in and around the town of Maungdaw early on August 25, three of which involved grenades or bombs. However town residents living nearby said they heard no explosions. They said they heard gunfire early in the morning of August 25 coming from the Dhamma Yone monastery (where 100 troops were stationed), and also from near the entrance to the town, but there was no sign of the “mob” of extremist terrorists that supposedly surrounded the police post in Ward 5. They said they saw the army and local non-Rohingya villagers burning houses in Maungdaw starting on August 26.
In Buthidaung, refugees from the Taung Bazar and Phaungtawpyin areas, where two BGP posts and one army camp were allegedly attacked by ARSA on August 25, said they had seen no sign of any ARSA attackers. The Information Committee stated that “At 3:40 am, 10 extremist terrorists attacked Taung Bazar outpost in Region 10 where they were met with a police repulse, leaving five terrorists dead. The extremist terrorists retreated at 5:15 am.” This was the outpost already guarded by 100 BGP troops, and where reinforcements of 70 Burma Army soldiers had installed themselves in the local school and madrassa, raising questions about how 10 men could have got close enough to launch any attack.
A madrassa student from Taung Bazar said he had heard gunshots and shelling in and near his village starting at about 4 am, before the morning prayer call. When it became light, at about 6 am, he joined other villagers trying to run for cover outside the village, but was shot in the back. Fortunately, he was helped by family members, and was able to flee towards the border. He said many people were shot and killed that day when they were running away, including his 17 year old cousin. He said Army, BGP and local non-Rohingya villagers were doing the shooting. He had heard that the madrassa he studied at in Taung Bazar, with 12 teachers and nearly 500 students, was burned down after he ran away.
A madrassa teacher from Taung Bazar was shot while trying to help his paralyzed father and elderly mother escape at about 4.40 am on August 25. He was injured by bullets coming through the wall of his house, which killed his younger brother. He was forced to abandon his parents to save himself. He ran to the other side of the river, and saw his village being set on fire, including his own house, with his parents inside it.
The other police outpost allegedly attacked by ARSA in Buthidaung on August 25, was at Phaungtawpyin, about four miles south of Taung Bazar. According to the Information Committee, “At 4:25 am, an unidentified number of extremist terrorists launched an attack on Phaungtawpyin police outpost in Region 10, leaving Police Sub-inspect Aung Myint Oo and police lance-corporal Soe Win dead. Two extremist terrorists died by the police repulse.” Similar to the Taung Bazar post, the BGP post in Phaungtawpyin had been significantly reinforced by the Army on August 24, raising questions about how such an attack could have taken place, and two police officers killed.
A teacher from the nearby village of Maung Nu described how he heard gunshots from the direction of Phaungtawpyin early in the morning of August 25, which went on till about 8 am. That day, most of the Phaungtawpyin residents fled to Maung Nu. On August 26, about 50 Burma Army troops came from the direction of Phaungtawpyin and began attacking the local villagers. The massacre of dozens of local civilians in Maung Nu has been documented by Human Rights Watch
Systematic targeting of civilians and destruction of entire Rohingya villages – no attempt to identify “terrorists”
During the clearance operations beginning on August 25, refugees from numerous villages in Maungdaw described a similar pattern of attack by Burmese security forces. Troops first shelled or opened fire on villages, then entered them, indiscriminately shooting at civilians or deliberately executing them, and burned down houses. There was no attempt at all to identify and capture so-called terrorists. The target of the attacks was clearly the entire civilian population of the villages, with the intent to drive them from their homes.
Almost all refugees interviewed by Kaladan Press recounted killings of civilians as they fled, but the levels of brutality appear worst in the villages of Done Paik (described above) and Tula Toli in northern Maungdaw, which are about three kilometers apart. The attack on Done Baik took place on August 25 and on Tula Toli took place on August 30. The similar pattern of atrocities, involving slaughter of hundreds of civilians, including women and children, and gang-rape and burning of rape victims alive, indicates that the same security forces were responsible.
A 17-year-old boy from Tula Toli, with bullet wounds in the chest, back and arm, told Kaladan Press how he had lost his entire family – his brother, 3 sisters and mother - in the attack. He was shot while hiding at the bank of the Purma river. His siblings were shot and knifed to death, and his mother beaten to death.
Another villager from Tula Toli, a 25-year-old man, described how his wife and three young daughters were shot and killed as they fled. His 20-year-old sister was raped, beaten, and set on fire. She miraculously survived and is receiving treatment for critical injuries in Kutupalong refugee camp
Questions also needed about the October 2016 attacks
The testimonies of the refugees not o