Ongoing clashes between Myanmar army soldiers and an armed ethnic group have forced about 300 villagers in Buthidaung township to flee their homes in western Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state, a local government official said.
About 30 children and senior citizens are among those who left the area during the latest army offensive against the Arakan Army (AA), said Shwe Kyaw Aung, director of Buthidaung’s development committee.
The refugees have sought shelter in the township’s Sithaung village, according to local media reports.
“Township administrators, members of parliament, and some civil society organizations are helping them find food and a place to stay,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We have placed them at the village’s middle school.”
The villagers survive off the surrounding mountains and nearby forests where they grow crops and collect firewood, but they can’t go there now because of the fighting in those areas, he said.
“They will suffer if they can’t go to work for a long time, Shwe Kyaw Aung said. “We can help them only for a short time. We need peace and stability in this area to ensure their long-term survival.”
Those who have fled the violence join hundreds of other villagers who escaped fighting that erupted in late December and January in Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township.
The fresh clashes broke out on Sunday in the area occurred in Buthidaung and Rathedaung. A battalion commander and 20 soldiers from the government army were killed after launching two ambush attacks against AA forces in Ponnagyun and Rathedaung townships.
Army abducts villagers
Government army troops on Wednesday abducted five residents from Yasoechaung village of Rathedaung township in Rakhine state, only three miles (4.8 kilometers) from the current fighting, said a relative of one of the abductees.
The five are Nga Htaung Che, Than Tun, Kyein Kyan Aung, Lu Phyu Che and Tun Aye Thein, said Khine Mya San, daughter of Kyein Kyan Aung.
“They brought my father from the farm,” she said. “We don’t know where he is or whether he was asked to perform hard labor.”
Some displaced villagers told the online journal The Irrawaddy that their relatives have been forced to serve as porters for the Myanmar forces.
“We are very worried about him because he is getting old,” Khine Mya San said. “My mother cries all the time for him.”
In a related development, a peace negotiator from the Myanmar army said he will hold unofficial discussions next month with armed ethnic groups that did not sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) last October, in keeping with a pledge by the new government to seek permanent peace and reconciliation.
Retired Lieutenant General Khin Zaw Oo told RFA on Wednesday that he will meet with members of the AA, Kokang, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in early May in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The meeting will also include leaders of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of nine ethnic armed groups that did not sign the NCA with the previous government under Thein Sein, he said.
“We have received an offer to hold discussions with army negotiators unofficially, although we will not discuss the matter as part of the UNFC,” said Naing Han Thar, deputy leader of the UNFC, who is also a senior official of the New Mon State Party.
“We have been standing by three groups which the previous government and army didn’t include in the NCA,” he said.
Eight of more than 20 of Myanmar’s armed rebel organizations signed the October peace accord. Others, including the AA, Kokang and TNLA, were excluded by the government because of ongoing hostilities with the Myanmar army or opted not to sign.
The UNFC ended a three-day meeting on Thursday in Chiang Mai about its future plans and negotiations with the new government led by the National League for Democracy, local media reported.
President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi have made peace and reconciliation the main goal of their administration and pledged to create a democratic federal union that includes all ethnic groups.
The participants discussed what its negotiation group has done to end a conflict between the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) and the TNLA/Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF), The Irrawaddy reported.
The hostilities between the two armed ethnic groups, which began last November in northern Myanmar’s Shan state, have displaced thousands of people.
The meeting participants also discussed the state of a merger between the United League for Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA) and the political framework agreed upon by Thein Sein’s government and armed ethnic groups that signed the NCA, The Irrawaddy said.
By Kyaw Thu, Min Thein Aung and Aung Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.