Police in Kyauktaw township in western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state on early Monday arrested 24 civilians who had fled their homes to escape armed conflict in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state, along with the couple who was hosting them, according to police and a local resident.
The two dozen people from Shin Let Wa village, which sits in a active conflict zone in Paletwa, were detained after officers and township administrators questioned them in the home of Thein Soe and his wife Hla Hla Yee in Kyauktaw’s Ywama ward, where they were temporarily residing.
“The homeowner reported [their presence] to the ward administrator when they arrived,” Kyauktaw resident Hla Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The ward administrator also reported this as an unusual event to the township administrator,” he said. “But it seems they all have been taken away, including the hosts.”
Rakhine state lawmaker Maung Than Sein from the Arakan National Party (ANP) told the online journal The Irrawaddy that police arrested the 26 people on suspicion of having connections with the Arakan Army (AA), which has been battling Myanmar soldiers in Rakhine state.
The government has branded the AA a terrorist group and has called on its forces to “crush” it.
Kyauktaw Township Court later confirmed that Major Aung Naing Soe from Light Infantry Battalion No. 375 filed lawsuits against the villagers under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, and that all but one were taken to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, The Irrawaddy said.
The section carries a three-year prison sentence for those who are members of or interact with an unlawful association, such as an ethnic armed group.
Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of using the act to intimidate and arrest ethnic minorities, especially those in turbulent regions where government troops are engaged in hostilities with ethnic armies.
Fighting between Myanmar troops and soldiers from the AA in Rakhine state has driven about 6,000 civilians from their homes and into other villages or even farther afield, according to local relief groups.
Some local governments have consented to requests by the Myanmar Army and other security forces to conduct searches of villagers’ homes for AA soldiers and civilian supporters, sparking fear in the local population, said regional politicians, who also warned that such a move could complicate the situation.
RFA’s calls to police in Ywama went unanswered.
But Rakhine state police chief Kyi Lin later said, “I can only say that we’re working in accord with the laws. If you would like to know more, come to me in person, and I will explain it to you in detail.”
Amid the uptick in fighting between the AA and Myanmar military in Rakhine state, government military authorities have restricted displaced civilians' access to food supplies in an effort to keep them from reaching AA troops.
Searches in Rathedaung
The arrests came as Myanmar troops continued searching villages in northern Rakhine’s Rathedaung township for AA soldiers who they believe may be hiding in homes following recent intense fighting there.
Hostilities between the two forces escalated in northern Rakhine following deadly coordinated attacks by Arakan fighters on police outposts in neighboring Buthidaung township in early January.
Local residents say some 100 soldiers from the Myanmar Army entered Rathedaung’s Yae Gaung Chaung village at about 6 a.m. Sunday to conduct searches.
One resident who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said the soldiers disguised themselves in two local monasteries before entering the village to search homes.
“They changed from their army uniforms into police uniforms before leaving the monasteries,” he said. “They then came to the village and searched one house after another. They also asked me to sign a paper, but nothing was written on it.”
While the soldiers probed the village’s estimated 200 homes, male residents hid in nearby villages out of fear of government troops who make frequent visits to Yae Gaung Chaung, he said.
“It [the search operation] was mainly conducted by the Myanmar Police force and other institutions,” said Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun. “The Myanmar military is responsible for security and will conduct searches only if necessary.”
Rohingya, Traffickers Arrested
Police in central Myanmar’s Magway region, meanwhile, arrested 10 Rohingya Muslims from ethnically and religiously divided Rakhine state, who were traveling illegally with two human traffickers, a police officer involved in the matter said.
Authorities apprehended the group and the traffickers in the town of Thayetin in Mindon township as they traveled from Kyauktaw township to Yangon, said Police Colonel Myint Maung from the Mindon Police Station.
“They are here at the police station and are under investigation,” he told RFA. “We will work on their case according to instructions from the top officials.”
Each of the 10 Rohingya paid the traffickers about 3,500,000 kyats (U.S. $2,300) each to be taken to Yangon region’s Thaketa township, he said.
The Immigration Department will file a case against the 10 Rohingya, who are viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are not permitted to travel freely inside or outside Myanmar, for violating the country’s Immigration Act, Myint Maung said.
Mindon police have filed charges against the two traffickers, he added.
Only Rohingya who have government-issued National Verification Cards (NVCs) and receive permission to travel can leave their confines and go elsewhere in Myanmar. Those without NVCs and who leave the area without permission risk changes under the Immigration Act.
One of two traffickers had a “crime reporter” ID card issued by the Myanmar Crime Reporters Association (MCRA), an organization comprised of former police officers and informants who are notorious for their involvement in criminal activities, including human trafficking in Rakhine state, Myint Maung said.
The so-called “crime journalists” wear grey or beige photographer jackets and caps with an insignia with a red and blue paneled shield with white script, similar to that of the police, according to a June 2018 report by the magazine Frontier Myanmar.
MCRA chairman Thet Naing Oo told RFA that his organization is investigating whether the one trafficker is a member.
“And if he is a real member, we have to make sure what kind of person he is,” he said. “If he is a real member and really violated [the law], the association will have to file a lawsuit and take action against him.”
The 10 Rohingya are among more than 280 members of the minority group from Rakhine state who have been arrested in Magway region during the past several months while en route to other regions of Myanmar or to Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand or Malaysia, where they believe they will have a better life, according to police.
In January, police arrested more than 30 Rohingya in Magway, they said.
Rohingya, who are denied Myanmar citizenship and access to jobs, health care and education, say it is difficult to try to survive in Rakhine state.
More than 120,000 Rohingya and other Muslims have been living in crowded displacement camps in the state since 2012 after their homes were destroyed during a spate of communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
“As Rakhine is a poor state, people try to go out of state to work,” said Rakhine state lawmaker Maung Than Sein.
Myanmar expects to repatriate some of the more than 720,000 Rohingya who fled northern Rakhine during a brutal crackdown by security forces in 2017 in response to deadly assaults on police outposts by the militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
Reported by Aung Theinkha and Htet Arkar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.