Refugee testimonies contradict Burmese government version of the August 25 “terrorist attacks”

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.