Officials have imposed a nighttime curfew in five townships in Myanmar’s war-ravaged western Rakhine state in response to a string of violent attacks against police and government soldiers in the past three months that resulted in deaths and property destruction, regional lawmakers said Tuesday.
Established by an order signed by Colonel Phone Tint, regional minister for border affairs and security, on behalf of Rakhine state’s chief minister, the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is in effect for two months starting Tuesday in Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, and Minbya townships, though it could be extended by another order.
The curfew comes amid ongoing armed conflict between Myanmar troops and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine army seeking greater autonomy in the state, which has left dozens of insurgents, policemen, and civilians dead and displaced an estimated 17,000-22,000 people, most of whom are now living in temporary shelters.
“The curfew order under Section 144 has been imposed in these conflict areas,” said Khin Saw Wai, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine’s Rathedaung constituency, referring to the section of Myanmar’s Penal Code under which the curfew was called.
“I assume all township administrators already know of this order signed by the minister for border affairs and security on behalf of the chief minister,” she said.
Other officials said that the curfew is unlikely to have much effect on the daily lives of people who live in business hubs, though they are concerned that people will not be able to go to hospitals for medical emergencies that occur at night.
“Health is an urgent issue,” said ANP general secretary Tun Aung Kyaw. “[We] need proper instructions on how to travel in case of an emergency while the curfew order is in effect. No instructions for emergencies were seen in the order, so that could be a problem.”
In a letter dated April 1 that Phone Tint sent to the administrative committees of the five townships and to regional administrative committees of Sittwe and Mrauk-U, he said the curfew was ordered to maintain law and order, stability, and economic and social stability, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
“I heard that, too, but asked the regional government for details,” said Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s Western Regional Command, which is responsible for Rakhine state. “They would include instructions and regulations in the curfew order.”
AA spokesperson Khine Thukha said the curfew will pose difficulties for organizations that are providing assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and limit their workers’ movement in the region.
“We think the move could lead to the worst instead of advancing to peace,” he said. “The Myanmar Army has been sending reinforcements both in weapons and manpower, so we can see signs that larger ‘rooting-out’ operations are underway following the curfew order.”
‘No reason was given’
Oo Hla Saw, an ANP leader and ethnic Rakhine lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, said local authorities did not state a reason for the curfew when they announced it publicly in his township.
“As a usual practice in rural areas, [the order] was being announced [around town] with loudspeakers and microphones from cars when I arrived in Mrauk-U,” he said. “The order said a curfew is being imposed from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., but no reason was given.”
Colonel Phone Tint, Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint, and Htay Maung, deputy director of Rakhine state’s General Administration Department, were unavailable for comment on the curfew order.
On March 26, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning American citizens not to travel to Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Ponnagyun, or Rathedaung on account of civil unrest and armed conflict.
The U.S. embassy in Yangon on Tuesday issued a statement expressing deep concern about harm to civilians in the fighting in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state and urged all parties to end the hostilities and work toward a peaceful resolution.
The embassy also said it was very concerned that government authorities are not allowing full humanitarian access to IDPs in Rakhine.
“Access restrictions on humanitarian and development organizations have prevented at least 95,000 additional civilians from receiving essential services, such as health care, education, and clean water, in five Rakhine state townships since January 2019,” the statement said
The statement came a day after 16 humanitarian groups issued a press release echoing the concern over civilian casualties, the displacement of communities, and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in central and northern Rakhine state.
They noted that government restrictions on the access of humanitarian and development agencies in Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, and Rathedaung townships since Jan. 10 have compounded the impact of conflict and displacement in the region.
The international NGOs criticized the government’s “blanket security approach” as depriving people in entire townships from receiving assistance and basic services, and called for Myanmar officials to permit quick, unfettered, and sustained access to all affected populations to assess their needs and provide comprehensive humanitarian assistance.
Armed conflict between Myanmar and Arakan forces intensified in northern Rakhine state in early January after AA soldiers attacked four police outposts, killing 13 officers. In response, the Myanmar government branded the AA a terrorist organization and instructed its military to crush the rebel group.
Two injured by shelling
Meanwhile, two young men were injured by an explosion from an artillery shell that fell into their home in Kyauktaw’s Phet Wun Chaung village, a local humanitarian aid worker said Tuesday.
Nyi Pu from the Phyu Sin Myit Tar Humanitarian Foundation, who helped transport the injured men to the hospital, said the explosion occurred around 2:30 p.m. Monday, though there was no fighting in the vicinity of the village.
“There weren’t any battles,” he said. “The shelling came despite the fact that there was no battle.”
The artillery shell that fell into the compound of the two cousins’ home injured the younger man very seriously on his arm near the elbow, he said.
“They asked us for help, so we went there and transported them to Kyauktaw Hospital,” Nyi Pu said.
Mann Tu, who lost a lot of blood from his arm wound, received a blood transfusion at the hospital, but was later transferred to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe for further treatment, he added.
The AA and local villagers said the shell was fired by government troops who were not engaged in any clashes in the area at the time. They also said that many shelling incidents had occurred in Rakhine villages during the past few days, injuring civilians and forcing residents to flee to safety.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said there was heavy fighting and attacks by fighter planes on Monday along the Phauk Phi Taung hills near Tha Lu Chaung village.
“Myanmar Army unit 539 based in Kyauktaw fired from their base camp,” he said. “They used 105-millimeter artillery, and shells fell onto Phet Wun Chaung village.”
He said the shells were fired by Myanmar Army’s Light Infantry Division 551 under the Sa-Ka-Kha No. 15 Command based in Doan Thein village since March 30.
The division fired heavy weapons toward the San Poe hills, Shitshartaung hills, and Nayone Daung Hill, Khine Thukha said.
“The shelling became more frequent on March 31 as infantry troops advanced toward these hills,” he added.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo denied that Myanmar forces had engaged in any major skirmishes with the AA in the area.
“There were no battles in the vicinity of any of these villages, namely Tharu Chaung, Taunggauk, Lamu Chaung, Nga Htway Chaung and Pyin Nyar Wa,” he said.
“There were no major battles yesterday,” he said. “It has been three days without major battles with heavy artillery fire. There was only some controlled firing. There was some exchange of small arms fire from both sides.”
RFA could not independently confirm the claims due to complications on the ground.
Construction workers detained
Also on Tuesday, the Myanmar military accused the AA of apprehending eight construction company employees who were working on a road project in Paletwa township and sinking a vessel carrying equipment and supplies for a bridge.
The Myanmar military’s True New information Team said in a statement that Arakan fighters detained the construction workers from the Hsu Htoo San Company, which is building the Paletwa-Mizoram highway to connect Myanmar and India, on March 30 and used small arms to attack a boat transporting construction materials for a bridge project on March 16.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha confirmed the detention of the construction workers, saying that some have ties to Myanmar Army intelligence.
“Former military intelligence and those who have links with the military intelligence are among the detainees,” he said. “We had to detain and question them as the situation requires.”
“We have no intention to disrupt the road project,” he added. “We can free those who are ordinary civilians, but we will continue holding them if they have connections with the military.”
The information team’s statement also said that more than 170 AA forces arrived in Paletwa’s Twin Kin Alaung village on March 30 and captured 11 men and two women who were temporarily staying there. Both women and three of the men were released on Monday.
The Myanmar military said it has no detailed information about the ethnicity of any of the detainees, but added that the detentions would have an impact on Myanmar’s relations with India.
“It will affect bilateral relations,” said Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, secretary of the True News Information Team.
“The major development project aims to connect India’s landlocked region to the sea in Sittwe,” he said of the new roadway. “The project will benefit both nations. The whole region where the project is located is underdeveloped, so [the attack] is meant to disrupt bilateral relations.”
Though the government military has stepped up efforts to establish security in the region, attacks by the AA are hampering the development project, he said.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Kyaw Thu, and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.