Myanmar soldiers killed six detained civilians and wounded eight others early Thursday inside a school in a village in western Myanmar’s violence-wracked Rakhine state, as villagers tried to grab their guns in a coordinated attack, the government military said.
Government forces have been holding 275 civilians in Rathedaung township’s Kyauktan village since Tuesday to interrogate them about possible links to an alleged Arakan Army (AA) training camp.
Bridger General Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesman, said villagers attacked police and security forces who were conducting the investigations to determine if those held had ties to the AA, an ethnic Rakhine armed group that is battling Myanmar forces for greater autonomy in the state.
“Around 2 a.m. this morning, the villagers cheered and attacked police and military forces conducting the interrogations,” he said.
“They attempted to take guns from the security forces, so the security forces acted according to Section 131 of the Penal Code,“ he said. “They first verbally warned the crowd to disperse, then fired warning shots in the air. When they didn’t disperse and kept moving forward, the security forces fired shots as the last resort.”
At the time, Zaw Min Tun told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he did not have detailed information on the deaths and injuries from the incident, but an announcement by the military indicated that six villagers died, eight were wounded, and four were missing.
Following the shootings, the military surrounded the area with more than 300 troops, the announcement said.
Unconfirmed news reports said that as many as 10 villagers had been killed because some of those injured had died.
Responding to Zaw Min Tun’s comments, AA spokesman Khine Thukha dismissed the brigadier general’s version of events.
“His comments are senseless,” he said. “The security forces have kept the villagers in detention since April 30. Their detention site was heavily guarded by the security forces, so how could they be cheering and attacking them?”
“We think this is a plot made up by the Myanmar military to cover up their atrocities against the villagers,” he said.
A woman from Kyauktan village, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation, told RFA that she heard about 20 shots coming from the school.
“I heard the shooting at the school around 2 a.m.,” she said. “It was around 20 shots. No one dared to go out to look. The soldiers had completely surrounded the village.”
When residents later went to the school, soldiers prevented them from removing the bodies of the dead and taking the injured for treatment, she said.
“After a while, they gave the list of dead villagers to the village head and asked him to inform the families,” the woman said.
An impossible scenario
The eight injured civilians were taken to Sittwe General Hospital in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe in the afternoon, but the bodies of the deceased remained inside the school until evening, when soldiers told villagers they could collect them, villagers said.
The Myanmar military announced Wednesday that its troops had captured a temporary AA training camp in the mountains on April 28 and had started interrogating Kyauktan village residents two days later.
The soldiers detained the villagers in the local schoolhouse when they received information that AA forces were retreating from the captured training camp and taking shelter in Kyauktan village.
The announcement said army officials checked the family registration records of the 477 families living in the village, and decided to detain and question 275 males between 15 and 50 years old.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied that the Myanmar Army had seized the training camp and that AA soldiers had taken refuge in Kyauktan village.
The Arakan National Party (ANP), the state’s predominant political party representing the interests of Buddhist Rakhines, sent a written appeal on Thursday to President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, and the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, to take action against the shooters and to end attacks by government soldiers in Rakhine state.
“We sent this letter to inform, complain, and appeal to the government to take action to protect the lives of civilians by preventing further tragedies involving them, especially children, the elderly, and women,” said Tun Aung Kyaw, general secretary of the ANP.
The letter also alleged that Myanmar forces questioning the detained boys and men had concocted the story about a coordinated attack by villagers as a pretext for shooting some of them, he said.
“We have some of our party members in this village,” Tun Aung Kyaw said. “According to their account, the accusation that villagers tried to take the guns is impossible because they have been heavily guarded while being detained and denied food and water. Our allegation in the letter is based on the villagers' claim that it was not possible for them to attack the security forces.”
Offering a different, unconfirmed account of what led to the shooting, Rakhine state lawmaker Than Naing of Rathedaung township said the shootings occurred when a mentally ill detainee started yelling.
When reached by RFA later, Zaw Min Tun repeated his earlier statement that soldiers had fired on the villagers as a last resort and denied that the detainees were being deprived of food and water.
“With regard to accusations that the detainees were denied food and water, I have confirmed with officials from the police force and security forces on the ground that they are wrong,” he said. “Because they [the detainees] are only suspects, we have provided food and water accordingly.”
Preventing 'unwanted confusion'
U Than Naing, Kyauktan village elders, members of civil society organizations, and staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross went to the schoolhouse earlier to collect the bodies of the dead villagers, but were turned away, he said.
“We had just arrived at the entrance of the village,” he said. “We were not allowed to remove the bodies of the deceased villagers.”
Zaw Min Tun told RFA that Myanmar forces had stopped them for security reasons, but said they would be allowed to enter the village once the interrogations ended.
“They are trying to maintain stability to avoid confusion while they are issuing warnings and trying to disperse the crowd,” he said of the security personnel. “When they finish the announcements and interrogations, they will allow the aid groups to come in.”
“The military troops usually have a paramedic with them,” he added. “[The] paramedic from the unit is treating those who were injured. The aid groups have not been allowed to visit the scene for now to prevent unwanted confusion.”
The shooting incident comes on the heels of the deaths in custody of three other detainees who were taken away for questioning by Myanmar soldiers along with two dozen others from Letka village in Mrauk-U township, center of much of the fighting that has raged since January between the government army and the AA. The men were suspected of supporting the Arakan fighters.
Their deaths have raised suspicions of torture, bereaved relatives and local lawmakers told RFA a week ago.
The Myanmar Army is not the only one rounding up villagers, however.
The AA abducted more than 50 ethnic Chin villagers from Paletwa township in western Myanmar’s Chin state during a February clash with government soldiers that spilled over from the armed conflict in adjacent Rakhine state.
The AA has said that it took the civilians to a safe place after an attack by Myanmar forces prompted them to hide in a forest.
Fighting between the Myanmar Army and the AA has displaced nearly 33,000 civilians in central and northern Rakhine state and northern Chin state since hostilities escalated in November 2018, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Others have been injured or killed.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the latest detentions and shootings of civilians in the Rakhine conflict are nothing new.
“The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is well known for targeting civilians when it conducts war against insurgents, and this looks like a continuation of that horrific rights-violating practice.”
“Human Rights Watch and other organizations have repeatedly documented Myanmar troops using torture and even committing extrajudicial executions while interrogating persons they suspect to be members of insurgent groups, so there is every reason to suspect these incidents fall into the same pattern of behavior,” he said.
Letka villagers transferred
In a related development, Myanmar forces transferred the detained Letka villagers to Mrauk-U where they are being held in a police station in Sittwe, but did not clear them of any charges, their relatives and a military spokesman said Thursday.
“The police haven’t called us to go and see the detainees,’ said Khine Hla Sein, wife of one of the men being held. “We can only go and see them after they call us.”
“All villagers, including my husband, have no connection to the AA,” she added.
The detainees' family members, who are staying at a monastery in Mrauk-U’s Pyipinyin village, said they are afraid to return home because two military units are now deployed there.
It is not clear, however, if all 24 have been handed over to Mrauk-U police.
“We knew they would be transferred to police today, but we don’t know the details,” said Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command, which is responsible for Rakhine state. “We don’t know if all 24 people will be transferred or not.”
It is also unclear which offenses the villagers will being charged with.
“Twenty-four detained people are at No. 1 Police Station in Sittwe now, but we still don’t know what they will be charged with,” said Agga Wuntha, head monk of the monastery where the families are staying.
Rakhine state police chief Kyi Lin told RFA that the villagers have been transferred, but would not go into details.
“It is correct they have been transferred,” he said. “If you want to know the details, please come to see me, because I won’t give them over the phone. I will explain to you about it if you ask me in person because I am concerned about [you] getting the wrong information.”
RFA was unable to reach Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment, and Police Colonel Lin Htut from the Rakhine State Police Force said he did not know about the matter.
Yu Lwin Aung from the Myanmar Human Rights Commission said it is a human rights violation for the military to arrest villagers and shoot them.
“Even if the military arrests and questions AA members who are pretending to be villagers, it is a violation of human rights if those people are shot,” he said. “It is also a violation of human rights to shoot prisoners of war.”
"But it is difficult to blame the military for shooting those people without knowing the actual situation on the ground,” he said.
Maung Maung Lay, a member of the group Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, agreed.
“From a human rights point of view, their human rights have been violated,” he said. “All related parties and organizations that are detaining these villagers, and the government, are responsible for this situation. This is a terrible human rights violation.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.