An ethnic Chin group has called on the rebel Arakan Army (AA) to release 52 villagers it abducted from Paletwa township in western Myanmar’s Chin state during a clash earlier this year with Myanmar forces that spilled over from armed conflict in adjacent Rakhine state, the head of the group said.
The appeal from the Khumi Affairs Consultative Council (KACC) came as the AA warned of potential severe fighting in Rakhine because the Myanmar Army has deployed more troops in the state, where hostilities flared up late last year, claiming scores of lives on both sides.
The KACC issued a statement on Sunday demanding the release of the residents from a dozen households in Chin state who were taken away by AA soldiers following a clash with government troops near Kintalin village on Feb. 2.
Two of the original 54 abductees have escaped, while the remainder, who do not have enough food, are still being held in an AA outpost along the border of Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh, said KACC chairman Kyaw Nyein.
“The two men who escaped said that the AA has an outpost along the Myanmar, India, Bangladesh border, [and] that 52 people are still at that outpost with the troops,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
AA spokesperson Khine Thukha said that Arakan soldiers did not take the villagers by force.
“When the government army attacked [the ethnic] Khumi village with heavy weapons in February, the villagers ran into a forest and hid there,” he said. “When we saw them in the forest, we took them to a safe place in the border area.”
“The Bangladeshi government helped them first, and they have been working there now,” he said. “We didn’t take them by force. The KACC’s statement is a one-sided accusation. They can go to that place and ask their people [for the truth].”
The Chin Civil Society Network issued a statement earlier this month about ethnic Chins displaced by and injured in the fighting, who have expressed concern about the instability in the region.
“Because of the fighting, development work has been hindered,” said the network’s Salai Zagot Htan. “The IDPs [internally displaced persons] are still fearful and frightened. We now have more IDPs as well. We have demanded that the [armies] stop doing things that can halt development work and cause fear among the people.”
Salai Taya from the Chin Human Rights Organization said his group issued a statement on April 27 expressing concern after about 100 Myanmar military trucks from Brigade No. 77 entered Matupi township six days earlier.
The trucks were separated into two groups with about 50 trucks going north and the rest heading south,” he said.
“Three men were taken as local guides, but were told that they could return home later,” he added.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun denied forcing villagers to work for the army and said Myanmar troops have provided security services in Paletwa township and in northeast India’s Mizoram state since 2018 for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
The transportation corridor will allow cargo from India’s eastern ports to be shipped via the Kaladan River through Chin state to Rakhine’s Sittwe seaport, and then on to northeast India via river and highway routes through Myanmar.
“In the army, we have a firm regulation not to use forced labor for military operations, but there can be some workers [as guides] in small units,” Zaw Min Tun said. “These individuals are working with the army according to their own will.”
“It is impossible that locals are as fearful as they said,” he said. “Some villages even asked us to help provide security for them, but we haven’t added more troops or deployed there.”
AA issues warning
In the meantime, the AA has issued a warning that severe fighting could soon occur because the Myanmar Army has deployed more troops in Rakhine, AA spokesman Khine Thukha told the media last week and urged civilians to be cautious.
“The government army has deployed more troops in Mrauk-U, Minbya, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, and Paletwa townships,” he said. “If the government army launches an offensive attack against the AA, we have to fight them back, so there may be more serious and heavier fighting and larger combat areas.”
“That’s why I have warned the Rakhine people not to travel alone — to travel at least two or three at a time — and have urged families and relatives to [remain] in their villages,” he said.
In response, Colonel Zaw Oo, spokesman for the Myanmar military’s Western Command responsible for Rakhine state, said Myanmar has maintained its current troop levels in the region.
“Why do you say the government army has deployed more troops? Based on what evidence?” he asked.
“We have been working on our security service in the region with our normal forces,” Win Zaw Oo said.
“We haven’t deployed more troops,” he said. “We haven’t used rockets, though we’ve had fighting with the AA — sometimes small [clashes], and sometimes serious ones, while we work on clearance operations in the region.”
Military spokesman Colonel Zaw Min Tun said that half of the soldiers who are serving in the Myanmar Army in Rakhine state are ethnic Rakhine.
“That’s why we always view the AA and Rakhine people differently,” he said. “The AA is the AA, and the Rakhine people are the Rakhine people.”
“The Rakhine people shouldn’t be too afraid,” Zaw Min Tun said. “The military has used helicopters, but this has only been to carry food for soldiers because the Kaladan River has less water for transportation during the summer season.”
Nearly 33,000 displaced
Clashes between the AA, which is fighting for autonomy in the region, and the Myanmar military in Rakhine and Chin states have severely escalated since November 2018, causing the displacement of nearly 33,000 civilians, according to a brief issued Monday by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Others have been injured or killed.
Ann Thar Gyi, who has been helping the IDPs, said displaced villagers are grateful for the AA’s warning about additional clashes, but that the AA alone is not solely responsible for civilians fleeing their homes.
“We thank the AA for warning people to be careful about the possibility of more fighting,” he said. “If it didn’t, we could be taken away, arrested, or shot during clashes because we wouldn’t have known there might be more fighting.”
“We can’t say that there is fighting in Rakhine state because of the AA,” he said. “Some villagers in Mrauk-U and Buthidaung townships told us that the government army was shooting into villages even though it was not fighting the AA. Because of these shootings, we have more IDPs.”
Hostilities between the AA and Myanmar forces intensified in early January following attacks by Arakan soldiers on police outposts in northern Rakhine state, prompting more than 100 battles between the two sides in the following months.
Though the Myanmar government ordered thousands of its troops into the region to crush the Arakan fighters after the deadly assaults, the exact number of troops in Rakhine and Chin states is unknown.
The AA has refused to divulge the exact number of soldiers in its ranks. A January report by the online journal The Irrawaddy put it at 7,000.
Two armed ethnic groups allied to the AA — the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — issued a statement threatening to join the fight against the Myanmar army if the hostilities continue to escalate, the Myanmar Times reported Monday.
The members of the alliance are still evaluating whether Myanmar forces are interested in a cease-fire in Rakhine state, the report said.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Aung Tha Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.