The Myanmar military has committed “war crimes” and other human rights violations against civilians in western Myanmar’s violence-ridden Rakhine state since early January when the government ordered its troops to crush a rebel ethnic armed group in the region, Amnesty International said in a new report released Wednesday.
The London-based rights group’s new report titled “No One Can Protect Us: War Crimes and Abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine State” presents new evidence of abuses based on more than 100 interviews with villagers from various ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine and in conflict-affected areas. Amnesty also reviewed satellite images and videos and interviews with human rights officials and rights activists.
Clashes between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA), which seeks greater autonomy in Rakhine state, intensified earlier this year when rebel soldiers conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in the region.
Amid the fighting, government forces have killed and injured civilians during indiscriminate attacks and carried out arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, Amnesty said, raising the possibility that additional crimes are being committed in Rakhine.
The region saw a brutal military-led crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017 that left thousands dead and prompted more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
“Less than two years since the world outrage over the mass atrocities committed against the Rohingya population, the Myanmar military is again committing horrific abuses against ethnic groups in Rakhine state,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia, in a statement.
“The new operations in Rakhine state show an unrepentant, unreformed, and unaccountable military terrorizing civilians and committing widespread violations as a deliberate tactic,” he said.
Amnesty’s report documents reckless firing by Myanmar soldiers that damaged ancient temple complexes in the historic town of Mrauk-U, cases of the arbitrary arrest of Rakhine civilians suspected of having ties to the AA, physical abuse during interrogations, and deaths of villagers while they were in military custody.
The evidence points to abuses committed by soldiers implicated in past atrocities, including ones from specific divisions and battalions under the Western Regional Command responsible for Rakhine state, with newly deployed units from the 22nd and 55th Light Infantry Divisions responsible for many of the recent violations, Amnesty said.
The abuses associated with the fighting have occurred mainly in ethnic Rakhine communities, though members of other ethnic groups have suffered from the violence as well, Amnesty said.
In early April, a Myanmar military helicopter fired on a group of Rohingya laborers cutting bamboo, killing six and wounding more than a dozen others. The government army later said it was trying to prevent armed Arakan separatists from launching offensives, and claimed that the six were working with the AA.
The AA, estimated to have up to 7,000 troops in Rakhine state, also has placed civilians in harm’s way during its operations and has threatened village administrators and local businesspeople not to interfere in its activities, Amnesty said.
The rights group called on the United Nations Security Council to take action on the “full range of atrocity crimes” committed by government forces in Rakhine and in northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, where the military has been fighting other ethnic armies and has allegedly committed abuses against civilians, by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court and imposing a comprehensive arms embargo.
Myanmar Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun rejected Amnesty’s findings in the report.
“It’s a baseless allegation without evidence,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We made arrests with due process. Some detainees have been released, but some remain [in custody], and some have been charged.”
He went on to say that the military has charged some of them in accordance with Myanmar’s existing laws, and that troops have not committed any illegal acts.
“Operations in Rakhine are anti-insurgency operations,” Zaw Min Tun said. “We also regard the [AA's actions] as political crimes because of its armed insurgency against the state.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said Arakan fighters have not committed any war crimes, but acknowledged that they have arrested and interrogated suspected Myanmar Army supporters.
He denied earlier reports that the AA in February abducted ethnic villagers in Chin state’s Paletwa township which abuts Rakhine state, and took them to a border area, though a couple of escapees have said the villagers were forced to work and given little food.
“The AA didn’t arrest Khumi and Rakhine ethnics in Paletwa township,” he said. “You can find them at the Bangladeshi border, and we would greatly appreciate it if someone could feed them and keep them in safe place. We have to provide them with food when they face shortages, and it’s a burden for us.”
Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the hard-line Buddhist Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine’s Myebon township constituency, denied that rights violations and genocide have occurred in the western state.
“Such crimes and genocide do not exist in our region,” he told RFA. “There may be some controversy when there is a need to defend sovereignty depending on circumstances in the region, so it would be better if they [Amnesty] could provide evidence.”
In response to Amnesty’s report, Myo Nyunt, spokesman for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said, “We are doing our best to be able to do things that we cannot do at the moment.”
AA ambushes boats
Meanwhile, spokesmen for both the Myanmar military and the AA said that clashes between the two sides in Paletwa township on May 26 left a pair of Myanmar Army officers and at least one Arakan soldier dead.
The deadly assault occurred when the AA ambushed four boats carrying Myanmar military troops who were traveling along the Kaladan River between Maung Hnama and Ngadat villages, Zaw Min Tun said.
“Two officers were killed in the incident [at a] location in an area north of Paletwa,” he said. “They were shot while they were crossing the river. A battle ensued on the ground afterwards.”
“We have learned that there were deaths on both sides,” he said. “I cannot confirm the names of the fallen officers, but I can confirm that two officers have been killed.”
AA troops clashed with soldiers from Myanmar’s Light Infantry Battalion No. 218 around 8:15 a.m. on May 26 after Arakan forces ambushed them, said Khine Thukha.
“They traveled upstream on four vessels, and our troops ambushed them,” he said. “We crushed two of their motorboats. Several clashes ensued intermittently throughout the day until 8 p.m. A soldier from our side was killed, and some others were injured.”
The two armies engaged in sporadic hostilities on Wednesday, said Khine Thukha, though he added that he did not have any details.
According to RFA’s latest tally, 49 civilians have been killed and 85 others wounded in clashes in Rakhine and northern Chin states since the beginning of the year. Neither the Myanmar military nor the AA has issued accurate death tolls.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.