A blockade by Myanmar’s military is causing food shortages for 500 people living in two sealed-off villages as fighting rages on in the country’s western Rakhine state.
On Nov. 25, the army took a position at Yawchaung bridge about two miles from Ywatharyar and Chonchaung villages, identified as possibly harboring rebel forces. Soldiers are closely monitoring all traffic on the bridge, which villagers must cross to travel to other nearby villages.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Command, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the military will allow the transport of foodstuffs if the villagers have permission from local authorities.
He said the military captured 200 rice bags being transported to the rebel Arakan Army (AA) from these villages earlier this month. He also said that the military was protecting the bridge from the AA.
“We have taken our position at Yawchaung bridge for security purposes. Without our security forces, the AA would blast the bridge,” he said.
Local villagers, however, told RFA that the military is allowing only the transport of people on the bridge and is preventing them from carrying any goods.
A villager from Ywatharyar, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said they are facing a food shortage since they cannot transport rice, cooking oil and other foodstuffs across the bridge.
“We cannot go anywhere. They have blocked off access to the village. Over 500 people from our village and Chonchaung village have been blockaded for a month since Nov. 25,” the villager said.
“We face hardships trying to acquire food and health care. We have been relying on the food in storage. Now we are running out of food. If the blockade continues, we will be in trouble,” the villager added.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo disputed the claim.
“If they have complete documents from the village administrator and other community leaders, we will let them pass,” he said. “Even now, they are passing through despite their complaints. It is not true that we permit only people to pass.”
More than 1,700 people once lived in Ywatharyar village, but 1,600 of them fled to refugee camps after the military arrived, interrogated, and arrested a group of villagers on Nov. 10 and 11, residents said.
Five villagers from Ywatharyar village have been arrested on suspicion of having connections with the AA. The military said soldiers have transferred these detainees to the police.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha disputed the military’s claims.
“For a long time the Burmese military has been persecuting the local villagers from Rakhine villages. They use the excuse that they are supplying the food to the AA,” he said.
“This is the only thing they are good at doing,” he said. “Their intention is to prevent people from helping revolutionary organizations. They use the tactic of arbitrarily killing local civilians.”
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe, an expert on Rakhine history, said the blockade is indeed a tactic used by the military to prevent the villagers from supplying ethnic armed groups.
“It seems like they want to disrupt food supplies for AA troops. They said they allow the villagers who have permission [to transport food],” he said.
“But we know many villagers are not capable of getting permission documents or they don’t know how to. We have seen similar incidents during the military’s operations in other provinces. This will affect the civilians badly,” Maung Maung Soe added.
So far, only around 100 people, mostly elderly, are left in Ywatharyar to look after the village. Around 380 villagers remain in Chonchaung village, where most residents are of Chinese descent.
Phae Than, a member of parliament from the area, said that the bridge closure was an undue hardship on the people still in the villages.
“In fact, people from these two villages must have had a lot of trouble since they cannot pass over the bridge,” he said.
“They should be doing necessary checkups only and let them pass through. If they are interrogating and detaining everyone as an AA suspect, the villagers would be too afraid to go out.”
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.