Myanmar’s military said Friday that the army used helicopters in war-torn Rakhine state two days earlier to prevent armed Arakan separatists from launching offensives, and claimed that six Rohingya Muslim civilians killed by a chopper attack at the time were working with the Arakan Army (AA).
Military spokesman Major General Tun Tun Nyi told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the army used helicopters on April 3 to deter the AA from firing at its troops.
“Yes, we used helicopters and necessary equipment during the fighting,” he said.
The military-run Myawady newspaper said the army acted after it had received a confirmed report that about 150 AA troops were positioned around Sai Din Creek in Buthidaung township, and that the helicopter assault killed six Rohingya and injured nine others during the fighting.
The six Rohingya reported dead by the military were from Thayet Pyin, Dabyu Chaung, King Taung, Hteik Htoo Pauk, and Hpon Nyo Leik villages, and were with AA “terrorist” troops while the battle was taking place, the newspaper said.
“We have been questioning the injured and people who had been involved [with the AA] during the fighting,” Tun Tun Nyi said. “They are not from one place. It is obvious to conclude that they could be AA members because people from four or five villages were all together in the same [combat] place with the AA.
“The other reason is they are AA members or ordinary people whom the AA asked to help them,” he said. “Some people could have been forced by the AA to go with them. We are questioning them.”
Tun Tun Nyi did not explain how the Muslim Rohingya could possibly work with the AA, a group of Rakhine nationalists and Buddhists historically hostile to the Rohingya. Local Rakhines were seen helping the Myanmar army during its 2016-2017 campaign that drove 740,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Effects of war
Local residents told RFA on Thursday that at least 10 Rohingya working at the Sai Din bamboo production site died and more than a dozen others were injured by the Myanmar military’s aerial attack during fighting between the two armed forces near the Sai Din mountain range.
But AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied that Arakan forces engaged in combat with Myanmar troops in the area where the helicopter attack occurred and said that government forces have routinely fired artillery and arms indiscriminately.
When RFA contacted asked Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military's information team on Thursday, he confirmed that a battle took place in Buthidaung north of Yae Soe Chaung village.
But he referred questions about the Rohingya killed during a helicopter attack to Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command which is responsible for Rakhine state. RFA could not reach Win Zaw Oo because his mobile phone was switched off.
Hostilities between the government army and the AA, which is battling Myanmar forces in several Rakhine townships in its quest for greater autonomy in the state, reignited in late 2018 and exploded in early January after Arakan soldiers conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine.
In response to the attacks, the Myanmar government branded the AA a terrorist group and instructed its forces to crush it.
Between Jan. 4 and March 28, the fighting claimed the lives of 58 AA soldiers, 27 policemen, and 12 civilians, according to the Myanmar government. The number of Myanmar soldiers who have died has not yet been disclosed.
The Rakhine state government estimates that more than 26,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, while a Rakhine ethnic NGO puts the number at nearly 28,700 as of April 2.
Though the central and state government has provided relief assistance and supplies to the displaced civilians, Rakhine NGOs have said some temporary camps lack enough drinking water and food and that security issues have made it impossible to travel to certain areas. The Myanmar government has prevented almost all humanitarian aid groups from accessing the region as of January.
OHCHR condemns military
Also on Friday, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) expressed concern about attacks on civilians as fighting has escalated in Rakhine state, saying that the Myanmar military’s helicopter assaults could amount to “war crimes.”
“As the international community is taking steps towards accountability for the crimes committed against civilians in previous years, the Myanmar military is again carrying out attacks against its own civilians — attacks which may constitute war crimes,” said a statement issued by OHCHR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani. “The consequences of impunity will continue to be deadly.”
Sources on the ground in Buthidaung told the OHCHR that two military helicopters flew over Hpon Nyo Leik village tract — an area that has seen the large-scale displacement of Rohingya civilians in recent days — and fired on civilians tending cows and paddy fields, killing at least seven and injuring 18 others.
Roughly 4,000 Rohingya were displaced between March 25 and 30 from villages along the road connecting Buthidaung and neighboring Rathedaung township, forcing them to flee west to seek shelter in areas, including Hpon Nyo Leik village tract, the OHCHR said.
The OHCHR called on the Myanmar military and AA to immediately end the hostilities and to ensure that civilians are protected.
“We are deeply disturbed by the intensification of the conflict in Rakhine state in recent weeks, and condemn what appear to be indiscriminate attacks and attacks directed at civilians by the Myanmar military and armed fighters in the context of the ongoing fighting with the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army,” the statement said.
‘Not allowed to come here’
Meanwhile, a top official at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday that a new U.N. Human Rights Council envoy will not be allowed to visit the country to conduct investigations of human rights violations in Rakhine, focusing on atrocities committed against the Rohingya and other minority groups.
Chan Aye, the ministry’s director general, told RFA that Myanmar will turn away U.S. attorney Nicholas Koumjian, appointed as head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar by the U.N., and his team members.
“They will not be allowed to come,” he said. “This is an issue of our sovereignty.”
“They would conduct one-sided investigations,” he added.
“From the very beginning, there was bias in their missions and purposes, so they were banned from coming here,” Chan Aye said about other U.N.-appointed human rights envoys.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced Koumjian as the first head of the mechanism, established by the Human Rights Council in September 2018.
The independent investigative panel will collect and analyze evidence of serious international crimes and international law violations committed in Myanmar since 2011 and prepare files that will facilitate criminal proceedings against perpetrators.
“We strongly objected to it at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in September 2018,” Chan Aye said.
He said that Koumjian’s team could gather the necessary information from other U.N. organizations operating inside Myanmar.
“Although the investigation team is not allowed to come here, they could ask U.N. officials who have visited the conflict region,” Aye Chan said. “There are also employees from agencies working in the area. We have allowed them to. They can get information from these sources.”
‘Plenty of other resources’
Thar Aye, a Rohingya activist and political analyst on the Rakhine issue, agreed that the independent investigative team could gather information on human rights violations and conduct its probe without entering Myanmar.
“Even without entry, they will have plenty of other resources from which to gather data for their investigation,” he said. “They have their networks spread across the world.”
But Thar Aye added that keeping the investigators out of Myanmar would complicate the situation.
“Denying them entry will damage the country’s credibility in the eyes of the international community,” he said.
Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, a domestic NGO that focuses on human rights education and advocacy programs, said that rejecting the investigation panel would come at Myanmar’s expense.
“They will try to get the required information from whomever they can,” he said. “They will go to places like the Bangladeshi border for their investigation. What happens next is the Myanmar government no longer has the opportunity to confirm the validity of the information they get from somewhere else. We will lose the opportunity to prove our side of the story.”
Some officials and politicians in Myanmar said they objected to the new investigative panel.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), and Nanda Hla Myint, spokesman of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said they oppose the U.N.’s decision and will not accept the team’s investigations.
A previous U.N. fact-finding mission established by a Human Rights Council mandate investigated atrocities committed against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state during a military-led crackdown in 2017, and in Kachin and Shan states where the Myanmar military is engaged in fighting with ethnic armed groups.
A report the mission issued in September 2018 found that the Myanmar military had committed serious human rights violations against civilians and had violated international humanitarian law in all three states. It also called for the prosecution of top commanders before The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for ordering atrocities against the Rohingya.
The Myanmar government, which has largely denied that its forces committed atrocities against the Rohingya and were responsible for driving 740,000 of them across the border to Bangladesh, rejected the report.
Other U.N. rights officials, including former U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, have called for the prosecution of those responsible for committing suspected acts of genocide against the Rohingya.
In late 2017, the Myanmar government barred Lee from visiting the country to assess the rights situation after it deemed a previous mission report she issued was biased and unfair.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.