Intense fighting this week between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine state's Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships has displaced 2,000 villagers, raising the prospect of additional food and water shortages in the war-torn region, relief and disaster management workers said Wednesday.
The total number of people displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine has now reached an estimated 22,000, with about 16,000 staying in temporary relief camps across the region and the remainder living with friends or relatives, they said.
The Rakhine state government, however, has estimated the number of displaced civilians to be 11,300 as of March 20, the latest figure available, according an official at the state Disaster Management Department.
“About 30 camps face shortages of drinking water,” said Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, which is documenting the number of villagers who have fled their homes. “Food supplies are also needed for some 7,000 to 8,000 [people] who fled from their villages following artillery and gunfire last week.”
“Relief organizations are not ready and can’t travel in the region due to security concerns,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It’s difficult for them to travel by land, so [displaced civilians] are facing food shortages.”
Shortages of drinking water are more acute in camps in Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships, Zaw Zaw Tun added.
Maung Kyaw Sann, a relief volunteer in Ponnagyun’s Auk Myat Hle village, said food and tarpaulins are urgently needed.
“Large amounts of food supplies are needed,” he said. “Everything has run out, and they need everything. We want the government to provide them [with what is needed].”
Some funding was provided during a visit by a central government minister, and five kinds of relief supplies have been sent to the region, said Ye Min Oo, an administrative officer at the state's Disaster Management Department.
“There are a lot of needs,” he said.
“Fighting has forced thousands of people in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, and Mrauk-U townships to flee, so we have had to manage all the remaining supplies for the entire lot of [displaced people].”
The central government provided food and relief supplies worth more than 170 million kyats (U.S. $111,100) to the Rakhine state government for more than 16,000 displaced refugees in Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, and Minbya townships between Dec. 8 and March 18, Ye Min Oo said.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, gave Rakhine officials an additional 102 million kyats ($67,000) for food supplies on March 23, he said.
An escalation in hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA, a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, since late 2018 has also left scores of civilians and soldiers dead, according to estimates by local and official sources in Rakhine state.
The Myanmar military’s information team said Monday that the two armies have clashed nearly 100 times in Rakhine state since Arakan forces launched deadly attacks on police outposts in early January, killing 13 officers.
But the spokesmen did not provide the number of soldiers killed on both sides during the skirmishes, though local groups recently put the number of troops killed at 22 and the number of civilians killed at 24.
ANP tallies affected civilians
The Arakan National Party, the dominant political party in the state that represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people, is now collecting information about civilian casualties and damage to provide an accurate count.
The ANP’s vice chairwoman, Aye Nu Sein, told RFA that the party is trying to gather information on displaced residents, civilian casualties, those who have been injured, and those who have been detained by the Myanmar military, as well as damage to heritage sites in the ancient town of Mrauk-U.
The ANP set up a commission on March 20 to investigate the civilian deaths and determine which side is responsible for recent shelling that damaged temples and pagodas in Mrauk-U.
The commission also has determined that there are more than 6,000 displaced villagers in Mrauk-U following random shooting incidents by Myanmar forces which claim that they were firing during a counterinsurgency against AA soldiers on March 18, Aye Nu Sein said.
So far, the commission has tallied a total of 52 civilians affected by the fighting, including deaths, injuries, and detentions, she said.
The commission is expected to complete a report by the end of March, which the ANP will submit to President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, she said.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Thet Su Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.