The Myanmar military detained local aid workers and an ill man from Minbya township in volatile Rakhine state on Tuesday night as the volunteers transported him to a hospital in Mrauk-U for treatment, said their relatives and residents of Kyaung Daung village where the man lives.
Six volunteers from a local funeral service organization were accompanying Hla Maung Win, a 23-year-old who works at Thabot Sar Taesu farm, from the village to the hospital after he came down with a severe illness, they said.
Myanmar soldiers seized the seven along with their three drivers as they drove near Chaung Thit village about 9 p.m. local time Tuesday, their relatives and other villagers said.
“We have six members of our Funeral Service Association who went along with the patient after they were asked for help,” said Khin Maung Myunt from Kyaung Daung village.
“All 10 of them, including three drivers, were taken away,” he said. “We haven’t had any phone contact [with them]. We were told that they were taken by the military.”
Family members and Thein Shwe Maung, the administrator of Kyaung Daung village, traveled to Mrauk-U to inquire about the incident, but they still do not know the whereabouts of Hla Maung Win, the volunteers, or the drivers, said Maung Maung Aye, a relative of one of the missing persons.
“We were told that they encountered the army on the way to Mrauk-U, and then were detained near Chaung Thit village,” he said. “We don’t know which troops took them away or where they are being detained.”
RFA was not able to independently confirm accusations by relatives and villagers that Myanmar government soldiers had abducted the 10 people.
A reporter who contacted the office of Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman of the Myanmar military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, was told that the colonel was not available to comment because he was in a meeting.
RFA was also unable to reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
The Myanmar military has been engaged in deadly clashes with the rebel Arakan Army (AA), a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, in several townships, including Mrauk-U, since hostilities between the two sides reignited in late 2018.
Arakan fighters attacked four police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, killing 13 officers and injuring nine others. Another AA assault on a police outpost in Ponnakyun township on March 9 left nine officers dead and two others wounded.
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.
‘A severe violation of human rights’
Besides the 10 people now missing from Minbya township, four villagers from Kyauktaw township and two civilians from Mrauk-U have also disappeared since fighting occurred in those areas in February.
Thein Shwe Maung contacted the Myoma Police Station in Mrauk-U on Wednesday, but police said the Minbya township residents were not in their custody.
Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker representing Mrauk-U in the Rakhine state parliament, said that authorities need to inform the families about their relatives.
“Any group or institution that arrests people must inform their families about where they were taken,” he said. “We need more transparency.”
Local villagers expressed concern for the patient who was unconscious when he and the others were detained.
“Making an arrest of an unconscious patient is a severe violation of human rights by the Myanmar Army,” said AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.
Rights groups have accused both government troops and ethnic rebel soldiers of human rights violations in Myanmar’s conflict zones, including Rakhine, Shan, and Kachin states. Cited violations include kidnapping, torturing, and killing civilians, and forcing them to work as laborers.
The U.S. State Department noted in its latest country report on human rights practices in Myanmar issued Wednesday that the military has committed abuses in continuing conflicts in Shan state and in neighboring Kachin state.
Among the human rights abuses cited are arbitrary killings by security forces, the use of child soldiers by the government, trafficking in persons, crimes involving violence or threats targeting members of national, ethnic, and religious minorities, and the use of forced and child labor.
“Although the government took some limited actions to prosecute or punish officials responsible for abuses, the vast majority of such abuses continued with impunity,” the report said.
“Some non-state groups committed human rights abuses, including killings, unlawful use of child soldiers, forced labor of adults and children, and failure to protect civilians in conflict zones,” it said. “These abuses rarely resulted in investigations or prosecutions.”
Ethnic villagers speak out
Also on Wednesday, ethnic villagers held a press conference in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay to draw attention to civilians who have been abducted by the rebel Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in the Pansay area of Namkham township in northern Shan state.
The township, home to ethnic minority Shan, Kachin, Palaung, and Kholon Lishaw residents, is in a major opium-growing area that is a hub for Myanmar’s illegal drug trade.
The TNLA, a Palaung ethnic armed group, said it had apprehended locals involved in the illegal drug trade in Namkham, an area controlled by a Myanmar military-backed militia.
The TNLA is abducting, detaining, and extorting money from Pansay locals, endangering the ethnic minorities who live in the region — especially the Kholon Lishaw group — and inciting interethnic conflict, Pansay locals said at the news conference.
Theint Theint Tun from the Kholon Lishaw Information Committee said members of the ethnic group are now at risk since there is no one protecting them. She implored the government to ensure their safety and provide them with assistance.
The Kholon Lishaw, who live in more than 100 villages in the Pansay region, are now living in fear after hearing about the abductions, she said.
“The TNLA is committing various acts of persecution in the region,” Theint Theint Tun said. “They are committing rights violations and abuses. These incidents are increasing.”
“They arrest and abduct whoever they can find and extort money for their release,” she said. “They also seize livestock from the village. They demand as much as 3 million to 5 million kyats (U.S. $ 2,000-3,500) as ransom. They have arrested both young and old.”
The Kholon Lishaw people also want the government to ensure them equal rights, she said.
“We are begging the authorities not to ignore us,” Theint Theint Tun said. “We will not survive as an ethnic group. We need help to achieve rights equal to those of other major ethnic groups.”
Tens of thousands of the Kholon Lishaw have left the region in recent years for employment and out of fear of abduction by armed groups, she said.
She also called for assistance from civil society groups, saying that the Kholon Lishaw population never receives any aid and that most incidents such as abductions are never reported.
The TNLA told RFA that its soldiers arrested Pansay residents because they were involved in the illegal drug trade.
Locals, however, rejected the TNLA’s claim, saying that the soldiers had no cause to abduct children and seize pigs during the arrests.
RFA could not independently confirm whether Pansay locals are involved in drug cases.
Villagers also said that the TNLA has asked for ransom payments of more than 3 million kyats for the release of those it apprehended.
‘It has made our lives difficult’
Other Pansay residents say the TNLA is arresting all people, regardless of gender or age.
A woman whose three children had been abducted said she had to sell all the family’s goats and cattle to pay for the 5-million-kyat ransom for her eldest child and 3.6 million kyats for the younger ones.
“It has taken a toll on our livelihoods,” she said. “It has made our lives difficult.”
TNLA spokesman Major Tar Aik Kyaw told RFA that the army’s detentions of civilians are not based on ethnicity and that soldiers will apprehend anyone involved in drug cases in the region.
“We have arrested opium farmers,” he said. “We arrested them for growing, selling, and buying opium. We released them after a few months of captivity. We cannot keep them for years during this revolutionary period.”
RFA was unable to reach Shan state government officials for comment regarding the abductions.
The TNLA has been fighting the Myanmar Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army-South (RCSS/SSA-S) in the region since late November 2015, about six weeks after the signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) between the government and some of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups.
The RCSS is one of 10 signatories of the NCA, while the TNLA has been excluded from signing the accord because of its ongoing hostilities with Myanmar’s armed forces.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.