Junta targeting aid groups, social workers in Myanmar’s Sagaing region

6 social workers arrested in early May have been out of contact for more than 2 weeks.
By RFA Burmese
2024.05.23
Junta targeting aid groups, social workers in Myanmar’s Sagaing region A volunteer prepares free meals to distribute August 17, 2022, in Yangon, Myanmar.
AFP

Myanmar’s junta is targeting welfare groups assisting people displaced by conflict and social volunteer workers in the country’s northern Sagaing region, where armed clashes between the military and rebel groups are intensifying, aid workers said.

Last week, the United Nations said that Myanmar’s civil war has left a total of 18.6 million people in need – more than one-third of the country’s 54 million people and 1 million more than in 2023. The U.N. said that Sagaing, as well as the central Magway region and Chin state in the west, have the highest number of internally displaced people, or IDPs, at nearly 1.5 million.

Amid the humanitarian crisis, six social workers from Sagaing region were arrested in early May and have not been reachable for more than two weeks, aid workers told RFA Burmese on Wednesday.

A social worker in Sagaing township who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said that they are afraid to continue their humanitarian work after the junta arrested the six volunteers.

"In the past, we carried out volunteer work freely,” he said. “Recently, some members of the welfare association were arrested on false allegations. We have lost the confidence to continue our work.”

Of the six arrested, three are members of the Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association and the other three are volunteers in Sagaing township, aid workers said.

Zin Phyo Aung, also known as “Fatty,” who works as a driver for the Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association, was arrested at his house on May 5. Junta troops raided the association’s office located in Sagaing township’s Lay Kyun Myay monastery the following day.

Six members of the association were arrested during the raid, and four were later released. But the remaining two men, identified as Aung Thu and Arkar Phyo Kyaw, remain in custody, aid workers said. 

More recently, three social volunteers from Sagaing township – Aung Aung, Soe Win and Aye Zarni Tun – were also arrested, they said.

Allegations of terrorism

Dhamma Piya Lankkara, a senior Buddhist monk and the patron of the Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association, said the six social workers were arrested on allegations of ties to the anti-junta People’s Defence Force, or PDF.

“Three members of our association were arrested and the remaining social workers are from other welfare associations,” he said. “They were taken in private cars, and have been accused of connections with [illegal] organizations and violation of existing laws.”

Dhamma Piya Lankkara said it remains unclear where they are being held or whether charges have been filed against them.

Refugees in Yinmabin township, Sagaing region, Myanmar, May 13, 2024. (Social Welfare Network for Sagaing’s People)
Refugees in Yinmabin township, Sagaing region, Myanmar, May 13, 2024. (Social Welfare Network for Sagaing’s People)

The Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association has more than 300 members, and has been providing assistance in the areas of health, funerals and natural disasters for 16 years, the monk said.

While the junta has not released any statement about the arrests, pro-junta accounts on the social media platform Telegram recently claimed that six social workers from Sagaing township had been charged with violating the Counter Terrorism Law for allegedly “supplying the PDF.”

Workers fear for their safety

There are more than 30,000 people displaced by conflict in Sagaing region, an official with the Social Welfare Network for Sagaing’s People told RFA. The network comprises 25 organizations, and provides assistance to IDPs in 24 of Sagaing region’s 37 townships.

A volunteer helping displaced persons in Sagaing’s Monywa township told RFA that the junta recently began targeting social volunteers in the area.

"People are afraid to go to hospitals for the treatment of injuries, so we have set up a small emergency clinic,” he said. “However, the junta says our clinics are intended for the rebel forces instead of people displaced by conflict, so they label them illegal.”

The volunteer added that junta troops at checkpoints have been confiscating medicine and equipment earmarked for IDPs.

Since the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, many social welfare organizations have shut down for various reasons or had their work hampered by restrictions and arrests.

No access to treatment

Villagers in Sagaing’s Taze township told RFA they are worried about access to health care services as junta troops frequently conduct raids in the area on the pretext of targeting PDF hideouts.

A resident of Taze’s Chaung Yoe village told RFA that civilians are suffering because they lack adequate medical treatment.

"In the past, social welfare associations from nearby townships such as Ye-U and Lan Son let us borrow their cars if we had problems with the ones we use for funeral services, but these days, only a handful of welfare associations are operating,” he said. “They are afraid to provide assistance, even though they want to.”

Members of Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association perform a free funeral service in Sagaing township on March 14, 2024. (Thukhakari Health and Social Volunteering Association)
Members of Thukhakari Health and Social Welfare Association perform a free funeral service in Sagaing township on March 14, 2024. (Thukhakari Health and Social Volunteering Association)

The resident said that when people have been ferried to clinics for treatment, junta troops at checkpoints “conduct thorough inspections, forcing us to bring the patients back home.”

“When it comes to health problems, residents have no access to medical treatment at hospitals, and it's causing loss of life,” he said.

Violating international law

Burma Human Rights Network director Kyaw Win told RFA that the junta’s targeting of volunteers assisting people displaced by conflict is unacceptable.

"Humanitarian aid groups do not discriminate against people,” he said. “Their values dictate that if an individual is facing hardship, they will provide assistance. Prohibition, arrest and legal action against such humanitarian groups are in violation of international law.”

Kyaw Win added that the junta is using violence to stop the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people.

Calls by RFA to Nyunt Win Aung, the junta’s social affairs minister and spokesperson for Sagaing region, for information about the arrests of social volunteers went unanswered Wednesday.

According to a report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more than 20,000 civilians remain in junta detention more than three years after the military coup.

Translated by Aung Naing. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

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