The Myanmar Army has sent more than 8,000 troops to northern Rakhine state within the past two months, an ethnic armed group that is fighting national soldiers in the region said, indicating an ongoing buildup of forces in the battle-scarred area.
The reinforcements have include troops from Myanmar Light Infantry Divisions 22, 55, 66, and 99 and additional police forces, according to an announcement on Tuesday by the Arakan Army (AA).
The Myanmar government has instructed the military to “crush” the AA, an ethnic insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in the state, after Arakan fighters conducted deadly attacks on four police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, triggering the latest escalation in hostilities between the two sides.
Fresh clashes broke out in Mrauk-U and Paletwa townships from March 3 to March 5, leaving casualties on both sides, the AA said, but did not provide details.
Arakan forces also warned locals not to hitch rides on government military vehicles or to work as guides for national troops.
RFA’s Myanmar Service could not reach Myanmar military spokesmen for comment on Wednesday.
The number of civilians displaced by the armed conflict, meanwhile, now exceeds an estimated 10,000 in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state since late last year, according to the Rakhine Ethnic Groups organization which has conducted a survey of villagers who fled their homes.
Zaw Zaw Tun, a relief volunteer in the region and secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, said he recently calculated an additional 3,000 displaced people in temporary camps in Mrauk-U township alone.
There are now more than 39 displacement camps in Mrauk-U, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, and Kyauktaw townships providing sanctuary for the 10,000-some civilians who fled their homes, he said.
The internally displaced persons are in urgent need of food, drinking water, and medical care, Zaw Zaw Tun said.
An official from Rakhine state’s Education Department told RFA that two exam centers in Mrauk-U and Rathedaung townships were moved to other locations during matriculation examinations that began on Wednesday due to concerns about new clashes between the AA and government troops.
Of the more than 45,000 students who registered to take their exams at 120 test centers in Rakhine state, over 3,000 failed to sit for the test, he said, suggesting that some may have stayed home out of fear of the hostilities.
Locals step on landmine
Regional violence from the fighting between the Myanmar Army and the AA has been punctuated by the disappearances, arrests, and murders of village heads and ordinary residents alike with an unknown number of civilians killed by crossfire or unexploded ordnance.
Three locals collecting firewood triggered a landmine in Mrauk-U’s Out Thakan village on Wednesday, killing a 65-year old man and badly injuring the other two, said lawmaker Tun Thar Sein who represents the township in the Rakhine state parliament.
“Three villagers from Out Thakan village were transporting the firewood on the hills about two miles from the village and stepped on a landmine,” he said.
“The two injured are receiving treatment at Pyin Kyaw local hospital in Mrauk-U township,” he said.
RFA could not independently confirm later reports that said the two injured villagers were transferred to Mrauk-U Hospital.
The legislator told the Myanmar Times that more fighting broke out in Mrauk-U on Monday night along the Lay Myo River in eastern part of the township.
He said that more than 1,500 civilians, most of whom were from Lay Nyin Taung, Phayar Gyi, and Goggyoung villages along the river, sought shelter in town centers for fear of being caught in the crossfire.
Village chiefs petition authorities
Also on Wednesday, nearly 90 village administrators who resigned from their posts in Mrauk-U township a week ago in protest over the arrests of four other village chiefs for allegedly having ties to the AA petitioned local authorities to release their colleagues.
The four men are being detained for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a three-year prison sentence for those who interact with an unlawful association, such as an ethnic armed group like the AA.
The group of administrators who quit their jobs made an appeal at a press conference in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, arguing that the apprehension of the four men, who were detained by police as they held a monthly meeting in a township administration office, was not in line with the law.
The group said it is petitioning officials for their release because they do not believe that their fellow village administrators had violated the Unlawful Associations Act.
The village heads from Mrauk-U decided to resign together since they felt it is no longer safe to work as local administrators, they said.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Thet Su Aung, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.