Nearly 5,000 civilians displaced by fighting in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have taken refuge in the state capital, trekking 100 kilometers (60 miles) after camps near the conflict zone were too full to take them, refugees and officials told RFA.
The villagers huddling in Sittwe have fled a flare-up in the 20-month-old war between the Myanmar military and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine state’s northern townships and a small patch of neighboring Chin state.
The 5,000 are part of an estimated population of 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Buddhist monasteries and crowded camps in Rakhine after fleeing a war that has killed or injured hundreds of civilians.
In Sittwe, a port city of 150,000 people on the Bay of Bengal, newly displaced villagers now living in a temporary IDP camp at the Ngazinyaing Chaung Monastery compound told RFA that they had fled fighting in Chin state’s Paletwa township and spent three months at overcrowded IDP camps some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in Rakhine’s Kyauktaw.
More than 30 civilians from Paletwa's Kyat Yat Kaing village made the 100-kilometer (60-mile) trek from Kyauktaw to Sittwe, fearing arbitrary detentions by Myanmar soldiers known to raid villages and IDP camps, Aung Than Win, one of those who fled, told RFA on Sunday.
“When the soldiers entered the villages, they rummaged through the houses and arrested adult males on suspicion [of having connections to the AA], so we were fearful and ran away,” Aung Than Win told RFA.
The group later learned that the troops had burned down their houses a week after they had fled, he added.
Aung Than Win and the others took shelter in Wei Gyi Htaung village, then moved on to an IDP camp in Kyauktaw township.
“The food supplies are OK in Kyauktaw, but the accommodations are pretty crowded. That’s why we left for Sittwe,” he said.
Kyaw Oo Maung, another IDP from the same village, said he has begun looking for casual work while living in the Sittwe camp because he doesn’t know when he will be able to return home.
“I can’t assume that we will be able to return home,” he told RFA’s reporter in Sittwe. “I have made up my mind to stay at this IDP camp and make a living through manual labor jobs.”
Food, health services needed
Rakhine state, a mix of river delta and hilly farmland the size of the Netherlands or the U.S. state of Maryland which borders Bangladesh in Myanmar’s far west, has been scarred by sectarian violence between majority ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims since riots in June 2012 killed more than 200 people.
Most of the 120,000 Rohingya who were burned out of their homes in 2012 recently marked eight years in the roughly 14 camps that house the Muslims in the greater Sittwe area.
A 2017 military campaign that drove more than 740,000 Rohingya out of their communities in northern Rakhine and into refugee camps in Bangladesh has brought Western sanctions and war crimes charges against Myanmar’s military in international courts.
The IDP camp at the Ngazinyaing Chaung Monastery compound opened about two weeks ago and is already housing more than 70 people from Hna Ma Dar village in Paletwa township. Food and social services are in short supply there, said Phyu Phyu Than, the person in charge of the camp.
“Currently, we need large supplies of food,” she told RFA. “Aside from this, we have an urgent need for health care facilities and latrines for the IDPs. We have scarce supplies of food and accommodations.”
The IDPS must stay at the monastery compound until makeshift camps are built for them, Phyu Phyu Than said, adding that she has requested that the Rakhine state government provide more assistance for incoming civilians who have been displaced.
Win Myint, Rakhine's spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, told RFA that officials are ready to deliver relief aid upon receipt of the request.
“We already have some IDPs, and more are coming. Once we confirm their arrival, we will provide aid through the Disaster Management Department,” he said, adding that officials will need to know where the IDPs are from and in which camps they are living.
A tally by the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local NGO, puts the total number of IDPs in the state at around 200,000, including ones who have moved in with friends or relatives or are living in Buddhist monasteries.
An official government count that captures only IDPs in temporary camps, however, puts the number at about 78,000 as of Aug. 6, with more than 4,900 IDPs now taking shelter in 30 IDP camps and in relatives’ homes in Sittwe.
Mine explosion, shelling
Fresh violence from the conflict on Sunday drove other villagers out of communities in northern Rakhine state.
At least five people were injured in alleged shootings by military columns in Kyauktaw and Rathedaung townships on Sunday, locals in each area told RFA.
A remote-controlled mine was detonated near Kyauktaw’s Apauk Wa village, with shooting following the blast injuring the commander of the community Wa police station, residents said.
It is not clear if the shooting came from the Myanmar military or AA troops.
Afterwards, soldiers questioned about 50 civilians from the village, including women, for hours, while three men were beaten during a military raid that prompted about 400 residents to flee their homes and go to Kyauktaw town for shelter, locals said.
On the same day, Myanmar troops fired mortar shells fired from boats in the Mayu River in the vicinity of Zeydi Pyin village, with the blasts injuring four civilians from nearby Lower Kyaung Taung village, area residents said.
Zeydi Pyin residents who fled their homes in fear have taken shelter in Rathedaung town and in nearby villages.
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment.
“The local people are on the run all the time,” said Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from Rathedaung township. “There are already many villagers taking shelter in Rathedaung. The monasteries are pretty crowded with the refugees. Some are forced to stay in food storage rooms.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.