YANGON – No mass graves were found in Gutar Pyin village of Buthidaung Township in northern Rakhine State during an inspection of the area on Friday by officials and Muslim community leaders, the government’s Information Committee said.
On Feb. 1, The Associated Press published an article stating that mass graves had been found in Gutar Pyin. The report was based on video footage provided by Rohingya refugees now living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The AP said it had interviewed at least two dozen refugees.
The following day, the Union government ordered the Rakhine State government to investigate the claims. It immediately established a 17-member team comprising border police officers, township administrative officials, a deputy superintendent of Buthidaung Hospital, immigration officials, township police and legal officials, fire service department members and five community leaders.
While it stopped short of issuing a blanket denial of the existence of mass graves, the Information Committee said in a statement that the team had inspected locations identified in the AP report but found nothing. The community leaders and local residents said there had been no mass killings, but reported that heavy clashes had erupted between government security forces and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants in Gutar Pyin on Aug. 28.
Military offensives in the area have driven out at least 650,000 Rohingya since late last year in an operation the United Nations has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. The Bangladesh and Myanmar governments agreed in January to start voluntary refugee repatriation but that has been delayed until Friday.
According to the government’s statement, 19 ARSA militants were killed in fighting after about 500 militants attacked security officials with firearms, knives, slingshots, and darts. Officials buried the bodies of the dead militants systematically and opened a criminal case under counter-terrorism Article 50 (i) at Nyaung Chaung police station. The statement did not elaborate on whether security forces buried the ARSA casualties in the Gutar Pyin graveyard or in other locations.
The press released stated that the government was not necessarily denying the allegations and would investigate further if reliable new information comes to light. If any rights violations were found to have occurred, action would be taken against the perpetrators in line with existing laws, it said.
However, Rakhine State government secretary U Tin Maung Swe insisted that “Muslim community leaders say there was no mass killing in Gutar Pyin village as has been reported by media outlets. It’s all based on groundless information.”
The state secretary accused the AP of deliberately publishing a report based on hearsay and rumors in order to pressure Myanmar into allowing an international fact-finding mission in northern Rakhine’s Maungdaw district.
He said seven Muslim men from Gutar Pyin village assisted government officials in Friday’s inspection.
No journalists from independent media were invited to join Friday’s trip, though employees of state-owned newspapers and a member of the Press Council participated.
At least one local resident said he had heard stories similar to those reported by AP, however. Muslim civil servant U Tun Thar (name changed to protect his safety), who lives in Buthidaung Township, said Gutar Pyin village is located a 15-minute drive from the downtown area. Approximately 3,000 people lived there before government security forces launched clearance operations against ARSA after it ambushed police border outposts in Maungdaw district in late 2017.
Locals described Gutar Pyin as a tract comprising three villages — Muslim, Daingnet and Arakanese — but said the vast majority of the population had been Muslim. However, the Muslim part of the village had since been reduced to ashes while the two Arakanese villages remain intact following the security forces’ operations, he said.
According to U Thun Thar, one-third of Gutar Pyin’s former Muslim population has been sheltering in neighboring villages or with relatives in Buthidaung Region, while the rest fled to Bangladesh by boat. He said he had also heard about several burial sites having been found in Gutar Pyin village recently but Muslim residents had not been able to produce the actual bodies as they were not allowed to enter the area, which is restricted. Residents speculate that around 400 Muslims were butchered at Gutar Pyin.
“No one [among the Muslim population] dares to visit the burned villages; only the Rakhine residents, because only the two Rakhine villages are left,” he said.
Rakhine government secretary U Tin Maung Swe acknowledged that the village was previously dominated by Muslims, adding that some are currently still living in the village. Asked about claims of arson, he said some parts of Gutar Pyin village were set alight by ARSA militants. He declined to provide specific information about the remaining Muslim homes in Gutar Pyin.