20,000 civilians trapped by fighting in western Myanmar

Residents of Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, near Bangladesh, say army is preventing them from leaving.
By RFA Burmese
2024.05.23
20,000 civilians trapped by fighting in western Myanmar Maungdaw township, Rakhine state, July, 2021.
RFA

Around 20,000 civilians are trapped in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid fierce fighting between ethnic rebels and the military for control of Maungdaw township on the border with Bangladesh, residents said Thursday.

In November, the Arakan Army, or AA, ended a ceasefire that had been in place since the military’s February 2021 coup d’etat and has since captured nine townships across Rakhine state and launched several offensives in other areas. Maungdaw is a key trade hub for goods flowing in and out of Myanmar via Bangladesh.

Fighting escalated in the area after the AA recently attacked the pro-junta No. 2 Border Guard Force in Four Mile village, located about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) east of the seat of Maungdaw township, along the Maungdaw-Buthidaung highway.

A resident told RFA Burmese on Thursday that junta troops are now preventing civilians from leaving Maungdaw.

“Those who have tried to escape from the town were arrested,” said the resident who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “As the junta troops extort money, we don’t even try to flee anymore.”

The resident said junta reinforcements in six or seven trucks arrived in the area on Wednesday and that troops are patrolling the town at night.

More than 26,000 people, including ethnic Rakhines, Rohingyas and Hindus, live in Maungdaw township, but Muslim Rohingyas make up an estimated 80% of the population.

Residents said that most of the Rakhines – who are the majority ethnicity in Rakhine state – have left the town gradually since April, and now “only a small number” of them remain in the town.

However, they said that nearly 20,000 people – mostly Rohingyas and Hindus – remain trapped in Maungdaw amid the fighting.

Living in fear’

Another resident of Maungdaw township, who also declined to be named, told RFA that they were prepared to flee at a moment’s notice, if the chance arrived.

"We regularly hear fighter jets and heavy artillery fire in the town,” they said. “I have prepared my backpack with some clothes in it.”

Three-Mile bridge near Maungdaw township, Myanmar, December 2020. (RFA)
Three-Mile bridge near Maungdaw township, Myanmar, December 2020. (RFA)

A Rohingya from Maungdaw said that those trapped in the town are “living in fear.”

"The junta and its [forcibly recruited] Muslim [militia] forces have threatened that Rakhine people will be arrested and local Muslims will be shot dead on the spot if they try to flee,” he said.

The AA has captured several junta outposts along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, and at present only a few junta camps near and south of Maungdaw township remain under the control of the military, according to residents.

All bridges to Maungdaw have been destroyed and junta troops have blocked entrances to the town with the newly arrived reinforcements, they said.

Attempts by RFA to contact Hla Thein, the junta’s spokesman and attorney general for Rakhine state, by telephone regarding the latest situations in Maungdaw went unanswered Thursday.   

The AA issued a warning on May 20 calling on international organizations and residents of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Thandwe townships to evacuate ahead of increased clashes. 

After the resurgence of battles in Rakhine state since November 13, the AA has controlled 10 townships, including Buthidaung township of Rakhine state and Paletwa township in Chin State.

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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