The Myanmar military said Friday that it is forming an investigation team to probe the deaths of civilians held in custody during the army’s clearance operations against the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in war-torn Rakhine state, following reports of the deaths by RFA’s Myanmar Service.
According to RFA's reporting, at least 15 civilians have died while in military or police custody or detention since March 2019 during the conflict.
Government soldiers have been rounding up men and boys in villages close to battles zones on suspicions of supporting the AA, an ethnic Rakhine military fighting for greater autonomy in the state, and then holding them in detention and interrogating them.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the team will be formed at the level of the Western Regional Command, which is responsible for Rakhine state.
“There are some people who died during the detentions for security reasons by our forces,” he said. “As is the procedure, we reported the deaths, and autopsies were done. We are going to investigate further to have more transparency.”
The team will announce at a later date how the probes will be conducted, he said.
Zaw Min Tun said of the 15 deaths reported by RFA, one civilian had died of malaria, while another had died after being transferred to police.
He also said the military recognized only six deaths during an early May shooting of detainees held in a schoolyard in Rathedaung township's Kyauktan village, as opposed to the eight reported by RFA.
‘Could provide some relief’
The investigation team will be formed Friday in accordance with Section 176 of the Military Law to investigate deaths during detention in five incidents in Rakhine state, Myanmar’s military information committee said in an announcement.
The deaths in question occurred in Kyauktan village, Pan Myaung village in Minbya township, Letka village in Mrauk-U township, Minthar Taung village in Kyauktaw township, and Waitharli village in Mrauk-U township, the committee said.
Myanmar political analyst Maung Maung Soe said that the military must exercise care in how it handles the probes.
“If they take forming this investigation team seriously and reveal the truth about what happened, it could provide some relief for the grievances of the local people,” he said.
“Now, in some cases, people were arrested and later died, but their bodies were not returned [to their families],” he said.
“The military needs to be very careful so that the situation does not deteriorate,” Maung Maung Soe said. “In addition to the investigation, it should give clear directions to officers in charge at all levels [to deter them from committing human rights violations].”
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission has investigated the incident in Kyauktan village and released its findings in a report to the government.
In mid-May, Myanmar security forces fired on nearly 300 Kyauktan village residents they had rounded up for interrogation in a school compound for allegedly having connections to a nearby AA training camp. Eight men were injured, and two later died of their injuries.
The military said the soldiers had to open fire when some of the detainees tried to attack guards, despite the firing of warning shots. Other witnesses said the chaos broke out when a mentally disturbed man started yelling at night.
Police arrest deportees
In a related development, Myanmar police arrested six ethnic Rakhine men deported from Singapore this week for allegedly conducting activities in support of the AA, with three of them taken into custody immediately upon their arrival in Yangon, relatives, close friends, and a lawmaker said Friday.
Singapore's home affairs ministry said authorities apprehended the Myanmar nationals, including Aung Myat Kyaw, the younger brother of AA commander-in-chief Major General Tun Myat Naing, for using the country as a platform to build support for “armed violence against the Myanmar government” through their organization, the Arakanese Association-Singapore (AAS).
The ministry said that investigations indicated the AAS was mobilizing some members of the local Myanmar community to support the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), which are engaged in a battle against Myanmar forces for greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
The AAS is believed to be raising funds for the AA’s insurgency and providing relief aid and money for social activities to ethnic Rakhines displaced by war in the northern part of the state.
AAS chairman Hein Zaw was detained by police upon his arrival at Yangon International Airport Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Aung Myat Kyaw and AAS member Tun Aye were apprehended at 11 p.m. after they landed at the same airport, said the sources, who declined to be identified.
The Myanmar journal Tomorrow’s News published photos of police arresting AAS communications director Ye Kyaw Htet at his home in Sanchaung township, Yangon region.
‘We are not funding the AA’
The other two men — Tin Hlaing Oo and Aye Myat Mon — who were deported from Singapore on Wednesday, were spotted at Yangon International Airport the same day.
Family members and a Rakhine state lawmaker told RFA’s Myanmar Service they heard that police had arrested the pair in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, and said they were concerned for their safety.
Khin Saw Wai, who represents the Rathedaung township constituency in the state parliament, told RFA that he learned about their arrival from Facebook posts.
“But I heard that they traveled to Naypyidaw yesterday,” he said. “I was told that the Naypyidaw police detained them after checking their ID cards, but I don’t know the reason for the arrests.”
The two men are now being held at Dekkhinathiri Township Police Station awaiting interrogation, he added.
Tun Tin, a retired schoolteacher who is the father of Tin Hlaing Oo, said he spoke briefly with his son the day he arrived home.
“[He said] he had about 10 million kyats (U.S. $6,350) he had saved from working in Singapore,” Tun Tin, who lives in Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township, told RFA. “He said he would go to Mandalay. Next, I heard that he got arrested in Naypyidaw. I called his cell phone, but he didn’t answer.”
Tin Hlaing Oo, an engineer who has been working in Singapore for more than a decade and whose family lives in the Rakhine capital Sittwe, said he has been supporting social aid activities in the state from abroad.
He told RFA from the Yangon airport on the evening of his arrival that authorities have a list of up to 86 ethnic Rakhines involved in supporting such social activities.
“There are many members who are only interested in and focused on social activities,” he said. “We are not funding the AA as many people think.”
He said Singaporean authorities asked whether he had been involved in funding the AA’s activities, and that he was later released when they found no evidence.
Zaw Htay, director general of Myanmar President Win Myint’s office, declined to comment on the arrests and referred RFA to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The ministry’s director general and the director of the Special Investigation Department said they did not have any reports about the arrest of Tin Hlaing Oo and Aye Myat Mon.
Naypyidaw police commander Myo Thu Soe also said he had no information about the pair.
The AA issued a statement Thursday, objecting to the Singaporean government’s statement, calling it unfair.
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw, Min Thein Aung, Htet Arkar, and Kyaw Tun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translation by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.