Two police officers were killed, and two others were injured when vehicles in a police convoy hit a mine on Wednesday along the main road in Ponnagyun township of Rakhine state, local residents and law enforcement authorities said, in the latest bout of violence in Myanmar’s volatile western region.
Villagers told RFA that they heard two explosions two minutes apart around 7 p.m. local time, while the convoy traveled between the township’s Kyan Khin and Pan Nilar villages as it made its way from Kyauktaw township to the Rakhine's capital Sittwe.
The blasts were followed by 20 minutes of gunfire, they said.
When local residents went to check the area on Thursday morning, they found a damaged police vehicle and a white sedan.
“I went to the area to see what happened,” said Shwe Than from Pan Nilar village. “I saw about 20 policemen and damaged vehicles. They were a police vehicle and a white sedan. The two vehicles seemed to have been damaged by the mine explosion.”
Some Pan Nilar residents left their village for fear of being arrested on suspicion of collaborating with rebel fighters operating in the area who are believed to have planted the explosive devices, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
RFA was unable to reach Ponnyagyun township’s police station, township administration, or the Sittwe district police chief for comment.
Rakhine state police chief Kyi Lin later told RFA’s Myanmar Service, “Right now, we are still making an assessment of the situation. We don’t have anything to announce yet.”
Ye Zarni, the official Facebook of Myanmar’s police force, said that four officers were driving three extended-cab police vehicles and a white sedan confiscated from a criminal case to Rakhine state police headquarters in Sittwe when the blasts occurred.
Two policemen were killed, and two others sustained injuries, with one of them being sent to a hospital for medical treatment, the online post said.
The police called the blasts an attack by the rebel Arakan Army (AA) which is engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces in several areas of Rakhine state.
RFA was unable to reach the AA for comment.
Since 2016, there have been several instances of homemade bombs exploding along the Yangon-Sittwe highway which runs through Ann, Myebon, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Ponnagyun townships in Rakhine state. Most of the incidents have occurred when military vehicles passed through the areas.
The AA set up a training camp and an operations area in hills to the east of the Kyauktaw-Mrauk-U highway, where Arakan soldiers have been blocking, destroying, and planting and exploding land mines on public roads and forcibly recruiting villagers, the state-run Myanmar News Agency reported on Wednesday.
When government forces captured an outpost there, they claimed they found Myanmar military uniforms and insignias worn by Arakan Army soldiers to impersonate national soldiers to detain and torture local residents in a scheme to smear the government, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun from Myanmar’s military information committee told RFA.
Civilians bear the brunt
Northern Rakhine state has been rocked by an escalation in hostilities between the Myanmar military and the AA, an ethnic insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in the state, since late November 2018.
The government instructed the military to “crush” the AA after its fighters carried out deadly coordinated attacks on four police outposts in Buthidaung township in early January.
An unknown number of civilians have been killed by crossfire or unexploded ordinance, and roughly 7,000 in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state have been displaced by the armed conflict.
In a separate report, The Irrawaddy said that a couple from Ahtet Thin Pone Tan village died in Ponnagyun township on Wednesday when an artillery shell they had found in a wooded area exploded on their way home.
Civilians have reported that Myanmar soldiers are detaining them for questioning if they are suspected of having ties to Arakan fighters, and are forcing some to work as porters or guides.
Soldiers from Myanmar Army Battalion 539 detained a 17-year-old student from Kyauktaw’s Pyi Taw Thar ward on Feb. 21 for questioning, but released him three hours later after he showed them proof that he was scheduled to take his 10th-grade examinations.
It remains unclear why Zaw Naing Naing Htay was taken away, though Aung Tin Win, the administrator of Kyauktaw’s Ponna village, said it appeared that the troops may have wanted him to be a porter.
The teenager was later taken to two hospitals for psychiatric treatment after his family learned that he had been beaten by the soldiers, his father Shwe Sein Oo told RFA on Tuesday.
His family said Thursday that Zaw Naing Naing Htay has now been transferred to Myanmar’s commercial center Yangon for further medical treatment because his condition has not improved.
He has been in shock and is suffering mental distress from the incident, Shwe Sein Oo said.
The family has filed a criminal case against the army which denies any wrongdoing and has filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Shwe Sein Oo and Kyaw Hla Myint, a Kyauktaw resident who posted information about the incident on Facebook.
Meanwhile police in Mrauk-U township took four village administrators in for questioning as they gathered for a monthly meeting at the township administration office, local lawmaker Tun Thar Sein said Thursday.
The detainees are Maung Oo Sein of Pying Cha village, Sein Hla Maung of Yan Aung Pyin village, Maung Tin Shwe of Pauk Pin Kwin village, and Aung Naing Tun of Kyaukse Pyin village, he said.
Another local village administrator, Khin Maung Tun, told RFA that the administrators are being held, but no reason has been given.
Police have not allowed visitors to see the men while they are in custody, he said.
Mrauk-U township and Rakhine state police officials were unavailable for comment.
Eleven other civilians have been missing in Mrauk-U township since a mid-February flare-up in fighting between government soldiers and the AA, though the national military has denied arresting them, people with knowledge of the situation told RFA earlier this week.
Eight of the missing are from the township’s Yan Aung Pyin, Tanaing Khan, and Tharsi villages, while another three are vendors from northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing region, sources said.
Local residents believe the Myanmar Army arrested them to force them to serve as guides, said Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.