At least eight civilians were killed and 17 others were injured Monday by artillery shells fired by Myanmar forces in conflict-ridden Rakhine state, with wounded villagers forced to wait at military checkpoints for two hours before receiving permission to go to hospitals for treatment, local residents and relief volunteers said.
Government soldiers launched the assault on Kyauk Seik village in Ponnagyun township at about 8 a.m., killing seven men and one woman, all between the ages of 11 and 26, while the injured included two children aged three and seven, they said.
“People who were walking by the road were killed and injured by artillery blasts,” said Myint San Oo, father of one of the injured. “The military’s battalion No. 550 fired the artillery.”
Clashes between government soldiers and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) occurred near the village along the Sittwe-Yangon Highway about 2.5 miles north of Ponnagyun town.
Ponnagyun has seen fierce fighting between the warring sides and is one of nine townships in the conflict zone where the government has imposed a mobile internet blackout as a security measure.
Relief volunteers helping the affected civilians said four villagers were killed on the spot, two people died in Ponnagyun Hospital, and two others died on the way to Sittwe General Hospital.
Maung Naing from the Free Funeral Service Society, which transported the injured to hospitals, said military and police forces at a security checkpoint stopped one of his organization's vehicles and refused to let it pass.
“The doctor told us the injured patient was fighting for his life and needed emergency care,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
When Maung Naing and his colleagues told this to the security forces at the checkpoint, they responded that they had to interrogate everyone, regardless of their condition.
“The patient was sinking fast as we were held at the security gate,” Maung Naing said. “We begged them to let us pass, but they would not.”
Combined military and police have set up several security checkpoints on the highway connecting the capital Sittwe with Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, and Mrauk-U townships, so they can check passing vehicles for any evidence linking their drivers and passengers to the AA.
Zeyar Lynn from the Shwe Yaung Myittar Humanitarian Group, which is also helping injured villagers, said authorities have a responsibility to help ensure that wounded civilians receive timely medical treatment.
“Their superiors should have relaxed the rules for critical situations,” he told RFA. “I would especially like to appeal to them to allow emergency patients to pass quickly through security stops after minimal checking.”
Of the 13 injured villagers, 10 are currently in Ponnagyun Hospital, while the others were sent to the Intensive care Unit at Sittwe General Hospital.
Don’t target civilians
Thein Maung Aye, uncle of one of those killed, told RFA that civilian casualties are unacceptable.
“I want to appeal to the leaders of the state,” he said. “The conflicts between the military and the AA have nothing to do with local civilians. They don’t cause the conflicts.”
“If these people were killed during the armed fighting, it would make sense. But this time, they [Myanmar soldiers] fired into the village on purpose. This is totally unacceptable,” he said.
Khine Thukha, spokesman for the AA, which seeks greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in the state, denied any battles had taken place in the area.
“There were no battles between the AA and the military today,” he said, adding that the incident in Ponnagyun is proof that Myanmar troops are targeting Rakhine civilians.
RFA could not reach the Myanmar military for comment, though army spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told the Myanmar Times that clashes in the area have occurred since April 11.
Two days earlier, he told RFA that government soldiers never target civilians during military operation unless there are AA soldiers disguised as civilians in communities.
Fighting since the beginning of 2019 has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced about 157,000 others in northern Rakhine state, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local humanitarian relief group.
Soldiers block food aid
Civilians displaced by the conflict in some townships, meanwhile, continue to face food shortages in temporary camps because of road blockades set up by the Myanmar military.
Soldiers have even deterred donors from providing support to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, said Khine Myo Aung, administrator of the government-recognized Naungchaung camp in Kyauktaw township, which houses about 2,500 displaced civilians.
“Now donors dare not come to help the refugees because of the army’s blockade, [so] we’re facing food shortages, especially rice,” he said.
The World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance agency of the United Nations, tried to deliver rice to the camp on April 8, but the Myanmar Army deterred the humanitarian aid workers and they returned to Sittwe, he added.
RFA could not reach the WFP for comment.
Four days before the failed WFP delivery, 15 displaced people from the camp went to the local administrator’s office to collect bags of rice donated by the state government, but Myanmar soldiers detained them on suspicion of having ties to the AA, which the central government has declared an illegal association and terrorist organization.
The state government itself has tried to donate about 250 bags, but the army has blocked the move, Khine Myo Aung said.
About 560 families in the camp require 25 to 30 bags of rice daily, he added.
“Donors now dare not visit the displacement camps because even government donations have been blocked by the army,” said Nyi Pu from the Phyu Sin Myittar NGO Group.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun denied that Myanmar forces are preventing humanitarian groups from assisting displaced civilians in camps.
“[We’re] not blocking any assistance to refugees. Organizations such as the Red Cross are being allowed there. We’ve even helped them,” he said.
Zaw Min Tun also said that the military charged seven of the 15 people who tried collect the bags of rice because they had ties to the AA.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maun and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.