At least four villagers, including two five-year-olds, died and eight others were injured when Myanmar soldiers allegedly shelled their community in Rakhine state Tuesday, a relief volunteer and local residents said, as fighting in the 21-month-long war raged on amid a spike in coronavirus infections.
The fresh fighting swelled the ranks of refugees huddled in overcrowded makeshift camps, where health officials say it’s not possible to practice social distancing, and displaced civilians say they are receiving no protective gear and fear the war more than the pandemic.
Six artillery shells believed to be fired from a Myanmar army base landed in Nyaung Khet Kan village on the border between Ann and Myebon townships Tuesday morning, killing Chan Nyein Thu 27; Thura Aung, 5; schoolteacher Moe Thet, 29; and her daughter, Thu Thu Hein, 5, according to residents.
“Four people are dead and eight others have been injured, including two who are in critical condition with head injuries,” said Win Hla Aung, a volunteer relief worker in charge of the Kan Taung Gyi displacement camp.
“The injured were sent to Kan Taung Gyi Hospital,” he said. “The entire village had to flee.”
At Kan Taung Gyi, where more than 1,000 villagers sought shelter in an internally displaced person (IDP) camp, some residents said the soldiers fired artillery shells indiscriminately and not in response to an attack by the rebel Arakan Army (AA).
“It wasn’t a battle. They fired indiscriminately. The AA rebels do not have artillery. I think it was the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] that fired the artillery shells,” said a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that he had not received any reports about the shelling.
‘They fear everything’
Despite a recent surge in COVID-19 infections, many villagers are more afraid of being attacked and killed in the armed conflict than they are of catching the potentially fatal respiratory virus, said Pe Than, an Arakan National Party (ANP) lawmaker from Myebon township.
“They fear everything,” he told RFA. “Though the pandemic has not killed many, the infection is spreading so fast, ... but the artillery fire is causing a loss of life every few minutes. It’s happening every day, and it’s worse than COVID-19, [which] can be prevented.”
The ANP, which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhines in the state, sent an open letter dated Sept. 5 to President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing calling for an immediate cessation of the government army’s tactics.
The letter also accused soldiers of intentionally targeting civilians.
So far, neither the government nor the military has publicly responded.
At least 289 civilians have been killed and 641 injured in Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state since hostilities escalated in December 2018, according to an RFA tally.
Roughly 200,000 others have fled their homes amid the fighting and now live in official or makeshift displacement camps.
As of late Tuesday, Myanmar registered 1,709 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 191 new cases reported and 10 deaths.
There were more than 552 COVID-positive cases in Rakhine state as of Monday, with more than half of those in the capital Sittwe, which has been hit hard by a surge in domestically transmitted cases.
Other Rakhine townships with significant numbers of cases are Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Buthidung, Rathedaung and Pauktaw — areas where many IDP camps and other temporary shelters are located.
‘Risk is very high’
Those living in congested official and unofficial camps are at risk for contracting COVID-19 because basic preventive measures like social distancing cannot be practiced, IDPs and health workers said.
“We are worried about getting infected with the coronavirus,” said Maung Kyaw Sein, one of about 200 displaced civilians living in small rooms at an IDP camp at the Uthalin Monastery in Sittwe.
“If someone is infected, it is very difficult to control because we can’t follow social-distancing regulations,” he said.
Maung Soe Thein, another IDP at the Uthalin Monastery, said there is no more room in the compound to build structures so people can spread out.
“It is impossible for us to have six feet of social distancing because we have to live in small rooms with many family members inside barracks,” he told RFA.
Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local NGO, said that outbreaks would likely continue unless officials can come up with a feasible plan to mitigate the risk of infection.
“We can’t enforce social distancing in camps,” he said. “If we could, we’d need to provide what the IDPs need and create a plan to monitor them. But because we don’t have any plan, the risk is very high.”
Some IDPs said the state government has not provided any support to those living in camps amid a growing number of COVID-19 infections.
“The government hasn’t supported us with anything,” said Kyaw Hla Sein, a civilian who lives in the Metta Paramy IDP camp in Sittwe.
“Individual groups have donated a little,” he said. “We have no more hand sanitizer, although we received some face masks from donors today.”
During a recent videoconference with Aung San Suu Kyi, Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu expressed concern over the displaced civilians “because they have to live in very crowded conditions in IDP camps, and the virus has become highly contagious.”
Dr. Sai Win Zaw Hlaing, Rakhine state’s health director, acknowledged that it is impossible to enforce social distancing rules in the IDP camps.
“Because we can’t do it, we are working as much as we can to educate them about how to protect themselves,” he said.
The Myanmar government placed Rakhine’s 3.2 million residents under a partial lockdown on Aug. 26, allowing only shops selling essential goods to remain open. Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to send food supplies to Rakhine and to provide financial support for the state.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.