The Myanmar military unleashed helicopter and jet strikes in response to the rebel Arakan Army's (AA) on-the-ground attacks on a police residential unit and battalion headquarters believed to contain heavy arms belonging to government troops in war-ravaged Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township, with spokesmen for the two forces releasing competing, imprecise casualty counts.
The AA began its armed assault around 10 p.m. Tuesday, starting with the police battalion’s family residential quarters, while around 400 Arakan fighters conducted a another attack on the police headquarters at about 3 a.m. Wednesday, said Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
Government forces used aerial strikes to counter the AA’s massive offensives, he and local residents said.
AA soldiers entered the police battalion headquarters after they seized the residential unit, but retreated at about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday when military reinforcements arrived and pushed them back, Zaw Min Tun said.
“Around 10:05 p.m. last night, they attacked three locations at the police battalion headquarters and the police’s family residential quarters,” he said. “They stopped after we fired back.”
“They launched a larger attack with around 400 [AA] members around 3 a.m.,” he said. “They were attacking from the family quarters. After reinforcements arrived and counterattacked, they retreated around 5:30 a.m.”
Some Myanmar soldiers, members of the police force, and AA fighters were killed during the attack, he said, though he did not provide the exact number of deaths and said that details would be released later.
Zaw Min Tun estimated that the number of Myanmar soldier fatalities could not be more than 10, though AA spokesman Khine Thukha said more than 20 Myanmar troops could have been killed during the clash.
“I would say the death toll from our side is less than 10,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“We are now working on a clearance operation in the surrounding area for security,” he said
Arakan forces launched offensives on the police battalion headquarters because it houses a crew that operates the Myanmar military’s heavy artillery launchers, Khine Thukha said.
“They said the facility is the police battalion, but it is not,” he said. “It is the base for artillery launcher troops who have disguised themselves as part of the police facility. It is the base camp for the Myanmar military’s heavy artillery. That’s why we launched attacks on that location.”
Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command responsible for Rakhine state, denied the AA’s claim.
“The Myanmar police force is responsible for the security of local civilians, so the security forces are stationed there for security purposes,” he said. “The claim that the battalion is harboring heavy artillery is just an excuse for the attack.”
Civilians killed, injured
The battle in Chaung-thit village on Tuesday night also reportedly killed an unknown number of civilians and severely injured a toddler and the child’s 25-year-old mother, who were hit by gunfire and are being treated in hospitals, a person helping the wounded villagers said.
Kyaw Thein Tun, secretary of the Mrauk-U Gayunar Hlaing blood donor’s group, said the child was transferred to Sittwe Hospital in Rakhine's capital.
Because of a dawn-to-dust curfew for residents, Kyaw Thein Tun said he and others had to wait until morning to reach the child and the woman from Mrauk-U’s Chaung Thit village.
“The mother was hit on the right side of the chest, [and] the child was hit on the left side of the chest,” he said. “They were first sent to Mrauk-U hospital, [but] the child was later sent to Sittwe after he started bleeding in the lungs.”
RFA could not independently confirm the report that some civilians were killed during the attack.
Khin Than, chairwoman of the group Mrauk-U Heritage Trust, expressed concern that the attacks may have further damaged historical structures in the ancient town because the clashes occurred inside an archeological zone.
“They were shooting all night,” she said of both Arakan and Myanmar forces. “I saw the planes arrive around 5:30 a.m.”
“There are many ancient monuments in that area,” she said. “It is inside the archeological zone. The vibrations from the firing of heavy artillery could damage many ancient monuments. The police battalion is inside the Mrauk-U archeological zone.”
Fighting in Mrauk-U in March damaged some of the hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the hills of the township, where a powerful Rakhine empire existed from the 15th century to the late 18th century.
Residents and archaeologists have said that the clashes have become an obstacle to efforts to have the zone listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020.
Meanwhile, a government committee working to establishing peace and stability in Rakhine state met Wednesday with state government officials, the speaker of the state parliament, and Rakhine lawmakers in Sittwe to seek ideas for ending the conflict, though invited civil society organizations (CSOs) NGOs did not attend.
The Rakhine State Peace and Stability Supporting Committee was formed by President Win Myint on March 14 to prevent provocations that could cause further instability in the violence-ridden state.
On Monday, the panel began its work, conducting field studies on peace and stability in Rakhine, consulting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions on short-term and long-term projects to bring stability to the state.
Committee chairman Aye Thar Aung, who is also deputy speaker of Myanmar’s upper house of parliament, pledged at the Wednesday meeting to provide humanitarian aid to civilians displaced by armed conflict in Rakhine, saying that the panel would supply relief mainly to IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships during upcoming visits, the official Global New Light of Myanmar said in a report.
San Hla Kyaw, speaker of the Rakhine state parliament, told RFA that the parties agreed to help displaced civilians and proposed that the committee allow international and local NGOs to provide relief assistance to them.
“We are going to collaborate with the committee according to policy, but we will be watching what it is going to do,” he said.
Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department has estimated that more than 31,000 villagers have been displaced by the clashes. But government officials have not permitted many relief groups to operate in the state, except for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Programme.
“We told them about our outlook — that we want the committee to have a good relationship with the Rakhine people,” said Win Myint, Rakhine state’s municipal affairs minister and government spokesman. “We will work together with it to help the IDPs.”
Than Tun, leader of a group of Sittwe-based CSOs, said the organizations have refused to meet with the committee because some panel members are not working with the others.
Two committee members — Rakhine lawmaker Oo Hla Saw, who represents Mrauk-U in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and is an ANP leader, and Htu May, a prominent female Rakhine politician and upper house lawmaker from Rakhine state constituency No. 11— said they would not participate in the meetings because they were assigned to them without their prior consent.
Citing her decision, Htu May said that is not the job of a member of parliament to explain government policies to the people.
Than Tun also said the CSOs did not attend the meeting because they do not believe that the committee can come up with a proper solution to address the IDPs or that it will be able to stop the fighting.
The committee held its first meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Monday and its second in Yangon on Tuesday.
Reported by Kyaw Thu and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.