Nearly a dozen Myanmar civilians have been missing in the township of Mrauk-U in restive Rakhine state since a mid-month flare-up in fighting between government soldiers and the rebel Arakan Army, though the national military has denied arresting them, people with knowledge of the situation said Monday.
Eight of the missing are from the township’s Yan Aung Pyin, Tanaing Khan, and Tharsi villages, while another three are vendors from northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing region, sources said.
“Eight people have been missing since Feb. 18,” said Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress. “We asked local residents, and they said they think the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s defense forces] arrested them because it had taken many other people recently, and some were used as guides.”
“Locals believe that [the missing] were taken by the Tatmadaw … during the aftermath of recent clashes,” he said, adding that some have since returned.
Clashes between Myanmar troops and the Arakan Army (AA) occurred in all three Mrauk-U township villages during the past week, sources said.
Though Zaw Zan Tun and others said the civilians were taken away by government troops, army spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun denied that they had detained them.
Some residents told RFA’s Myanmar Service that they must now hide because they fear Myanmar soldiers are detaining villagers and others to question them about possible links to the AA, and to use them as guides.
They fear for their safety because the fate of the missing villagers and vendors is still unclear, the residents said.
Families of the missing believe that their relatives may be among five badly burned bodies discovered recently near Yan Aung Pyin village, sources said.
Contacted by RFA, Tin Min Oo, deputy police chief of Mrauk-U district, said no one had reported the missing persons and that authorities were not aware of the bodies that were found.
Sein Dar, the wife of a missing man from Yan Aung Pyin village, told RFA that her husband has been missing since Feb. 19, when he was on his way home after taking cattle to pasture.
She said Myanmar soldiers detained him.
“I saw him with his legs tied in the military compound,” Sein Dar said. “The soldiers said it was nothing important and that they would release him, but he hasn’t been released yet.”
Another village resident told RFA on condition of anonymity that villagers are now afraid to leave their homes because many residents have been forcibly taken as porters and guides or arrested during the fighting in Mrauk-U township.
“We are afraid of everyone and fear leaving the village,” the person said. “We have nothing to eat, and it’s hard to find food. We normally find food in the woods, but now we are starving because we can’t go there.”
‘Police said they would look into it’
The three vendors from Sagaing’s Yay Oo township went missing on Feb. 18 and 19, according to their families.
One of them, Myo Htike Win, lost contact with his family and has been missing since Feb. 18 after heading to villages in Mrauk-U township, said his brother Myo Htike Oo.
Soe Naing and Yarzar Tun, two relatives who went looking for Myo Htike Win, disappeared the following day, he said.
“We reported them to the police as missing persons but didn’t check with the army,” Myo Htike Oo said. “The police said they would look into it.”
“We are worried since there’s no news about them, and we don’t know if they are dead or alive,” he said. “We worry a lot, and their parents are so restless.”
AA spokesperson Khine Thukha said Arakan fighters were not involved in the cases of the missing civilians.
“We don’t arrest any civilians,” he said. “But the army uses civilians as porters and arrests and tortures them.”
Army spokesman Zaw Min Tun said that Myanmar soldiers have a responsibility to question anyone who takes videos or photos with their cellphones while they conduct security activities in an area, but that does not necessarily mean they would be illegally detained.
“There’s no reason to make illegal arrests,” he said.
“[But] we will know if it happens, and the police will follow due process,” he said.
At least 25 people in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state have been arrested and are facing charges that they allegedly had contact with the AA in violation of Myanmar’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act.
Civilians have also died during clashes in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Maungdaw townships, though the precise number is unknown.
Relief groups say that more than 1,000 civilians have fled their homes since Feb. 19, joining roughly 6,000 others already displaced by hostilities between the Myanmar military and the AA since late last November.
Skirmishes between the two sides intensified after AA fighters carried out coordinated attacks in early January on four police outposts near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, killing 13 policemen and injuring nine others.
In response, the government branded the AA a terrorist organization and ordered its military to crush the Rakhine Buddhist forces.
The Myanmar Army then deployed a large number of troops to the region, with villagers and others reporting the use of heavy weapons, artillery, and helicopters in civilian areas.
Myanmar military Major Aung Ko Nyein was killed during a clash with the AA in Buthidaung township on Feb. 22, near where the border police officer attacks had taken place, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported Monday, citing the military commander-in-chief’s office.
The AA reported engaging in combat with Myanmar forces on Feb. 21, Feb. 22, and Feb. 23 in Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U townships in northern Rakhine and in Paletwa township in Chin state, but not in Buthidaung, the report said.
The AA said it killed six soldiers in Paletwa and Mrauk-U on Feb. 21 and that it killed at least two soldiers and severely wounded at least five others in Kyauktaw on Feb. 22, according to the report. The AA also said one of its fighters and an unspecified number of troops died in fighting in Paletwa on Feb. 23.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.