More than 3,000 residents of Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state face severe food shortages due to road blockades by government forces that have locked down the area for about six months, local residents said.
For the past 18 months, the AA has fought government forces in northern Rakhine and in Paletwa township of adjacent Chin state — areas where it seeks to assert control to assure greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people. The fighting has killed 260 civilians and displaced more than 160,000 people.
The government army has restricted the transport of rice — Myanmar’s staple food — in more than 40 villages into Rakhine’s Ann township township since January in an effort to cut off vital supplies to the rebel Arakan Army (AA), leaving the mostly ethnic Chin civilians to survive on bananas and vegetables.
In the meantime, some of those affected by the food shortages have fled their homes in Shangon and Mingaladon villages. The two communities house roughly 600 people and 500 people, respectively, near the Dalet Chaung village tract, according to Salai Win Maung of the Chin Humanitarian Assistance Team, an NGO.
The village tract comprises 36 ethnic Chin communities and five ethnic Rakhine communities.
“Because the government army has been blocking rice transports for long time, villagers have been suffering from a lack of rice,” Salai Win Maung said. “Right now, there is no rice to buy, and villagers have only bananas and vegetables to eat.”
News about the rice shortages have reached NGOs because the residents of Shangon and Mingaladon villages have mobile internet access, he said, and are not subject to a controversial government-imposed service ban in northern Rakhine townships and in Paletwa township.
“We still do not know about the situations in others villages,” Salai Win Maung said.
The blockades and travel restrictions also mean that villagers can no longer sell bamboo, cashew nuts, or other local products outside their communities and have no way to obtain money to purchase 40,000-kyat (U.S. $28) sacks of rice, he said.
Sheltering in a monastery
Thu Mana, a monk who is taking care of the villagers, said that about 3,000 people from the two communities have taken refuge at his monastery.
“They have no rice in their villages,” he told RFA. “Some of them were completely out of food. That’s why they are sheltering in my monastery.”
One person who declined to provide his name for safety reasons said the villagers left their homes because their food supplies were running out.
“We had to move here because roads and waterways to our village have been closed, so rice cannot reach [us],” he said.
Ethnic Chin NGOs also are trying to help the villagers, but they say they first must obtain permission from the Myanmar Army to deliver rice donations.
“There’s no food in some places, so we arranged to donate 50 sacks of rice to places where residents cannot go anywhere,” said Salai Win Maung. “But we have not yet received permission from the army.”
Local residents and NGOs say the blockades mainly affect children and pregnant women who lack access to food.
Some NGOs also say that Chin youths from the villages have fled to the commercial hub Yangon due to the food shortages and to escape the armed conflict. The trip from Ann town to Yangon takes at least nine hours by car or bus.
“We are very concerned about children and breastfeeding mothers,” said Mai Nan Wai, spokeswoman for the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee for Chin IDPs. “It could be a life-threatening situation.”
Rakhine officials say soldiers allow villagers to leave their communities for rice as long as they apply for and are granted approval from relevant departments.
“There’s no denial from us if they ask permission,” said Colonel Min Than, Rakhine state’s border affairs and security minister. “We allow rice transports, too.”
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said last week that he had no information about government troops forbidding rice deliveries to the area.
RFA could not reach the military's information team on Wednesday for an update.
The armed conflict has displaced more than 9,000 ethnic Chin civilians in Paletwa, while another 6,000 are at risk in Rakhine’s Ann, Minbya, Myebon, and Mrauk-U townships, the NGOs said.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo and Khin Khin Ei. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.