The Myanmar government has ordered its employees in war-stricken Rakhine state to obtain official permission before they travel by land or water amid an uptick in abductions of civilian officers by the rebel Arakan Army as it fights national forces for greater autonomy in the state, the border affairs minister said Friday.
The Ministry of Border Affairs issued the directive in December, Colonel Min Than, who oversees the ministry, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The Union government has issued a directive for government staff,” he said. “If they travel, they need to obtain permission from the corresponding department chief and must report to security forces in the travel area through the state government.”
“They should make prior arrangements before they travel,” he said. “If government employees travel on their own, something could happen.”
“If they report beforehand, the authorities will make arrangements for them, such as reserving a spot for them on military-operated ferries or transporting them via helicopter,” Min Than said. “Depending on their route, the authorities can make arrangements.”
Aung Lin, the officer in charge of Rakhine state’s branch of the Inland Water Transport Department, said ferry tickets will be sold to government workers only if they have proof of permission to travel.
“When a government employee wants to buy a ticket, we will ask them if they have already reported their travel plans and if they have received permission from the Border Affairs Ministry,” he said. “We will sell them tickets only if they have permission.”
The Arakan Army (AA) also has requested that government staff give it advance notice about any travel plans in northern Rakhine.
“We intend to allow for travel in the conflict area,” said AA spokesman Khine Thukha. “We have issued an order that the government inform us if their employees are traveling in the region. It’s because we want to avoid unnecessary casualties.”
“Nobody knows when battles will occur, so we can best protect them if they report their travel plans to us,” he added.
Residents meanwhile fear repercussions from both sides if they travel in the region, said state lawmaker Tun Aung Thein from Buthidaung township.
“The civilians are living and traveling in fear as the two armed forces clash all the time,” he told RFA. “They have issued a dusk-to-dawn curfew. We have no freedom of movement. Besides, it is very challenging for us civilians to report to two armed forces when we want to travel in the region.”
The travel restrictions were announced as a government military spokesman and a local lawmaker told RFA Friday that two border police officers have gone missing following a clash between Myanmar and AA forces in Rakhine's Rathedaung township, and are believed to be detained by ethnic soldiers.
Brigadier Gen Zaw Min Tun of the military’s information committee said the AA on Thursday morning attacked and abducted two of four police officers carrying cash to pay the December salaries of employees at the township’s Thazin Myaing police station.
After AA members shot at the policemen near Zedipyin village around 10 a.m. as they made their way toward the station, two of the officers went missing, he said
“Yesterday, four policemen went to Zedipyin to deliver the salaries for staffers in the Thazin Myaing police outpost in Rathedaung,” Zaw Min Tun said. “The AA fired at them with light artillery in the area northwest of Zeydipyin, [and] the police fired back,” he said.
“We were informed that all of them were taken, but two of them returned to the police outpost, and the other two are missing,” he said.
Zaw Min Tun said he did not know the amount of money that had been taken, though the online journal The Irrawaddy reported that a group of armed men stole salaries worth more than 4 million kyats (U.S. $2,656).
Neither Zaw Min Tun nor AA spokesman Khine Thukha said they had any information about the apprehension of the police officers.
“I haven’t received any report that says we have arrested them,” Khine Thukha said.
“It’s also possible that these policemen have stolen the salaries and have run away,” he told RFA. “We know that the police forces in Rakhine state are living in fear and acting unethically, so it’s possible they have deserted their positions and stolen the money.”
Khine Thukha also said that some criminals and gangs in Rathedaung and neighboring Buthidaung township are supported by the Myanmar military.
Khin Saw Wai, a Rakhine state parliament representative from Rathedaung township, confirmed the shooting incident after she learned about it from local residents who heard the gunshots near Zedipyin village.
“Policemen from the Thazin Myaing police station came to deliver the salaries — I heard it from the villagers,” she said. “I learned from local villagers that there was a shooting, and two policemen have been arrested.”
But the lawmaker said she did not know who detained the missing policemen and whether they have the money.
RFA could not reach the Thazin Myaing police station for comment.
Local government workers are increasingly being targeted by the AA as suspected collaborators with Myanmar forces amid fighting that escalated in northern Rakhine more than a year ago. Myanmar soldiers frequently detain and sometimes torture civilians suspected of having ties to the AA in villages near conflict spots.
The AA abducted 16 Road Transport Administration Department drivers from a ferry heading to work sites in Buthidaung township on Dec. 31, but released them a day later after interrogations.
About a week earlier, the AA said it was also holding three immigration officials who had been traveling in Buthidaung.
In late October, the AA abducted 58 people, including policemen and soldiers, as they traveled by ferry from Rakhine's capital Sittwe to Buthidaung, though Myanmar forces freed 15 of them in an armed rescue operation. The AA later released 25 civilians, but kept the remainder.
That same month, Arakan soldiers also detained 18 firefighter recruits and the deputy station chief of the state Fire Services Department as they traveled on a bus from central Myanmar’s Mandalay region to Sittwe, believing that they were auxiliary soldiers of the national army. The AA released them in early November.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.