The Myanmar military has killed 13 Arakan Army soldiers in counterstrikes amid ongoing clashes in restive northern Rakhine state, while in the capital Naypyidaw State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has ordered the country’s forces to destroy the rebels, a military spokesman said Friday.
The government army engaged in eight clashes with the Arakan Army (AA) between Jan. 5 and 16, during which time there were also five landmine explosions, Major General Tun Tun Nyi, vice chairman of the Myanmar military’s information committee, said during a rare news conference at the Defense Services Museum in Naypyidaw.
“Thirteen enemy bodies and three weapons were seized, and some soldiers died and were injured on our side,” he said, but declined to state the number of government soldiers who were killed. RFA has been unable to independently confirm the army’s figures.
Fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA intensified after rebel soldiers launched deadly attacks on four police outposts in the northern part of the state on Jan. 4, killing 13 officers and wounding nine others.
“State Counselor Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi has said the Arakan Army is a terrorist insurgent group and has told us to crush it effectively and quickly,” Tun Tun Nyi said.
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay has accused the AA of having ties to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group that carried out deadly armed assaults on police outposts in the same region in August 2017.
The AA, which represents the region’s Buddhist Rahkine ethnic group and is fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy in Rakhine state, has denied links to ARSA, which purports to speak for Muslim Rohingyas. Analysts have said ties between what are effectively enemy groups are improbable.
“If we fail to crush them [the AA] as instructed, we will face finger-pointing from the international community which might question whether we are fighting intensely against ARSA on religious grounds, and say that we didn’t crush the AA because it is an ethnic minority [organization],” Tun Tun Nyi said. “So, we need to decisively crush them as instructed.”
Army denies cutting off food aid
Major General Soe Naing Oo, chairman of the military’s information committee, told those at the press conference that peace in Myanmar cannot be achieved through armed struggles and must be sought through legal channels.
Myanmar’s National Reconciliation and Peace Center and a negotiation team led by Lieutenant General Yar Pyae has opened the door for ethnic armed groups to hold talks on peace, and it is up to AA to join, he added.
In response to a question on possible human rights abuses during the military operations in northern Rakhine, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the military’s information committee, said that government troops have been acting in accord with international rights standards.
“All know what happened in Rakhine state in the past, and the actions we had taken,” he said. “We’ve been addressing human rights abuses according to international standards.”
In response to the attacks by ARSA in August 2017, Myanmar forces launched a counter-insurgency against Muslim terrorists that included a brutal crackdown on Rohingya civilians who were subject to indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson. The United Nations and several Western countries say Myanmar committed ethnic cleansing when it drove more than 725,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps.
In the current conflict with the AA, government troops have reportedly restricted food supplies and other aid for some of the estimated 6,000 displaced civilians tin the region to prevent them from reaching the insurgents, drawing criticism from groups both inside and outside the country.
But Zaw Min Tun insisted that the military had instituted no restrictions on food supplies the region.
The Rakhine state government has banned NGOs and the U.N. from providing aid to civilians in five townships affected by the hostilities.
Fighting affects ethnic Khami
The thousands of civilians who have fled the fighting in the multiethnic state since late November 2018 and are staying in temporary camps in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, and Ponnakyun townships include roughly 1,600 ethnic Khami, according to members of the ethnic minority group.
About 450 Khami who fled from their villages in Rathedaung and Buthidaung townships have sought shelter in Buthidaung’s Pethadu and Donethin villages, they said.
“We were scared as we were hearing explosions from heavy weapons and gunfire for three days,” said Thar Kyaw, a resident of Rathedaung’s Bawdi Kan village. “Some ran into the forest out of fear. We couldn't bear it anymore and finally fled from our village.”
More than 180 villagers including 50 children from Bawdi Kan and Naypu Kan villages in Rathedaung Township fled to Thatpyin Kya village first on Dec. 18, and then to Pethadu village to stay longer, displaced Khami residents said.
“We are now thinking whether we should find a place in this village for a school for displaced children or send them to schools in nearby villages,” said another displaced resident of Bawdi Kan who gave his name as Tun.
Ethnic Khami depend on forests and farms to survive, and adults usually lack a high school education.
“I couldn’t go to school, and children currently cannot go to school as well,” said Kyaw Kyaw Naing, a displaced resident of Alechaung village in Buthidaung township. “If they can’t get an education, they will have the same kind of lives that we have. When I think about our ethnic group’s future, I feel really sad.”
Kyaw Kyaw Naing was one of 260 people from Alechaung who fled the community on Jan. 13 and are now staying in Htone Thin village in Buthidaung.
More than 180 displaced Khami are living in temporary tents in Pethadu village with no sanitation facilities or enough water to drink and use for cooking and washing. They said they also lack food, clothing, and health care.
'People are suffering'
The Rakhine Nationalities Union, a regional political and social organization, has teamed up with local donors to supply food and drinking water to displaced people in Pethadu.
“As there is no one to protect the ethnic Khami, their future is very uncertain,” said Shwe Hpaw Sein, an ethnic Khami who is the organization’s chairman.
“Not only Khami ethnics, but also other people in this region are working in forests and farms for their survival, but they can’t work now,” he said. “We need to do something for all these people in this region.”
Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Union, said the displaced people cannot stay in the temporary camps for too long, because the facilities are not suitable for living on a long-term basis.
“They should return to their homes and work in their villages,” he said.
But with government forces still carrying out clearance operations against the AA in the region, it is uncertain when those who have been displaced will be able to return home.
“People are suffering,” said Tun Aung, a displaced Khami from Buthidaung township. “We want the fighting to stop.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.