More and more villagers are fleeing their homes in western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state, even though they live in areas with no active fighting between government troops and the rebel Arakan Army, amid growing fear that Myanmar soldiers will shoot them indiscriminately during clearance operations, they told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The villagers — who are leaving communities in Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships that have not seen any hostilities — have pushed up the number of displaced residents by several thousands, according to a Rakhine state disaster management official.
“It is a life-threatening situation,” Pauk Sa, who fled with his family from Aukthakan village in Mrauk-U township, told RFA earlier this month. “They shoot anyone they can find. They also have arrested and taken away anyone they think is suspicious.”
Village elder Hla Tun Phyi from the same community said, “What we are afraid of is getting shot and killed. That’s why we are running for our lives to safety.”
Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA in late March that soldiers had apprehended individuals from villages near conflict areas, whom they deemed suspicious and detained for questioning because of an increased number of ambush attacks on its troops.
But many villagers said they are now running away or hiding whenever they see military troops.
Tun Tha Sein, a Rakhine state parliament lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township, said that villagers who flee when they see Myanmar soldiers make themselves look suspicious.
The fear among local residents increased after they heard the news about random shootings that left several civilians dead and wounded in Aukthakan village on March 29 and in the town of Mrauk-U on March 15 and March 18.
One man and one women died and seven people were injured during the Aukthakan shooting, including Pauk Sa whose head and limb injuries were so serious that she was later rushed to a hospital in the commercial hub Yangon for treatment.
“We are frightened because they cause trouble for civilians,” said Soe Wai, a resident of Aukthakan village, speaking about Myanmar soldiers.
“We are both frightened and distrustful of them,” he said. “If they hadn’t done those things to our villages, we wouldn’t view them this way, [and] we might still trust them. Now we don’t trust them anymore because they bring all kinds of trouble to the villages.”
‘Really scared of them’
Consequently, residents of Mrauk-U township’s Bu Ywat Mahnyo, Lakka, and Tain Nyo villages, where there is no armed conflict, are now also leaving their homes and taking refuge in nearby communities with available shelter.
“We local civilians are really scared of them,” said Hla Win Kyi who fled from Bu Ywat Mahnyo village and sought shelter in Tin Htein Kan village.
“They come, and they shoot randomly,” she said. “We are very scared and are running away from our homes. We can barely live a day at home. We cannot live in peace. Whenever they come, we run away.”
Many who have fled their homes said they later returned but left again because they were too scared to remain in their villages after Myanmar troops fired shots from heavy artillery.
“The military fired many gunshots at night,” said Thein Htun, who fled from Tain Nyo village and sought shelter in Tin Htein Kan village. “We were afraid that they might be coming into the village. We fled here because we fear them.”
The Myanmar military’s information committee and Win Zaw Oo of the Western Regional Command said their troops were shooting back at the AA following ambush attacks.
But AA officials have denied having any military confrontations in the villages where civilians have been shot.
The additional numbers of civilians fleeing their homes has increased the number of displaced villagers to more than 31,000, said Ye Min Oo from Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department.
Only 4,000 have returned home, leaving more than 27,000 still displaced as of April 6 and living in temporary shelters in Ponnakyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships, he said.
The Rakhine state government estimated in an earlier report that more than 26,000 civilians had been displaced, while a Rakhine ethnic NGO put the number at nearly 28,700 as of April 2.
The government so far has provided about 400 million kyats’ worth (U.S. $263,900) of rice and clothing for the displaced villagers and will continue to do so, Ye Min Oo said.
‘Try to win people’s friendship’
Htun Hlaing, a Mrauk-U resident and former Rakhine state parliament lawmaker who is now helping displaced civilians, said the Myanmar Army should try to win the trust and friendship of local civilians.
“It is very sad to hear that civilians from villages without conflicts are also having trouble,” he said. “There shouldn’t have been any losses in villages where there were no conflicts.”
“The military shouldn’t make people despise it,” he added. “It should only try to win people’s friendship.”
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA on March 29 that troops had conducted clearance operations in villages because AA soldiers were using them as cover.
In response, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the Arakan force has never carried out attacks on the enemy in villages where civilians might be injured or killed.
When asked if the military would investigate claims that shootings by its troops had killed and injured civilians, Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the army will follow established procedures.
“We have procedures for every situation,” he said. “We will follow our procedures on investigations whether it is for this case in losses among the civilian population or for any other scenario.”
Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint’s office, said in an earlier report that 103 clashes between the AA and Myanmar forces resulted in a dozen civilian deaths and 20 civilians injured between Jan. 4 and March 28.
He also said that six of the civilians were killed by the AA, but did not specify who killed the others.
Bangladesh wants end to random shootings
In a related development, the head of Bangladesh’s border guard service on Monday requested that the Myanmar government control random shooting along the border between the two countries to prevent civilians from being killed.
Major General Md Shafeenul Islam, director general of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), is leading an 11-member team in a five-day border conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in meetings with a 17-member delegation led by Myanmar Police Brigadier General Myo Than, chief of the general staff of the country’s police force. The conference began on April 6.
BGB officials told their counterparts that some civilians had been killed by indiscriminate shooting from the Myanmar side of border areas, and that they wanted Myanmar officials to control it.
“I request that you stop this firing near the border,” Md Shafeenul Islam said. “Sometimes it leads to unexpected deaths of innocent civilians.”
Bangladesh currently houses more than 1.2 million Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, including about 740,000 who fled across the border during a military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine state that began in August 2017.
About 1,300 Rohingya are stuck in a no-man’s land along the border at Bangladesh’s Tambru border crossing.
In June 2018, Myanmar border guards shot and injured a 10-year-old Rohingya boy playing in the buffer zone near barbed-wire fencing erected by Myanmar. In November, they fired shots into Bangladesh territory at Ukhia sub-district in Cox’s Bazar, injuring two people, including a Rohingya youth.
Brigadier General Myo Than said that problems affecting bilateral ties, understanding, and trust had cropped up after deadly attacks by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Rakhine state in August 2017, which triggered the brutal crackdown.
“When we try to resolve and work on the problems between the two countries, it is important for both countries to have mutual understanding and respect, and to follow the agreements between the two countries,” he said.
“We want Bangladesh to work together with us to create an atmosphere with sustainable development, stability, peace, and equality for the Rakhine people and Rakhine state,” he said.
BGB officials also said that the meeting would include discussions about the inflow of illegal narcotics, terrorism along the border, a cease-fire on the frontier, intrusions across the border, and joint patrols, according to a report by the online journal The Irrawaddy.
A press conference on the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
On Sunday, the Bangladeshi government sent more than 100 BGB personnel with heavy weapons to St. Martin’s Island off Cox’s Bazar district in the Bay of Bengal, to reinforce border protection and reduce drug trafficking, Agence France-Presse reported.
The deployment came in response to Myanmar’s building of a steel structure along the Naf River on its side of the border without informing Bangladesh authorities, The Irrawaddy said, citing diplomatic sources.
It also came amid Bangladesh’s fears of a further escalation of armed conflict in Rakhine state following a helicopter attack in Buthidaung township on April 3 that left a number of Rohingya dead and injured, the report said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.