Fierce fighting in Rakhine state prompts aid workers to evacuate

Move comes as junta extends emergency rule another 6 months, U.S imposes new sanctions.
By RFA Burmese
2024.01.31
Fierce fighting in Rakhine state prompts aid workers to evacuate People flee from a village after fighting between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic minority armed group in western Rakhine state on Nov. 19, 2023.
(AFP)

U.N. and other humanitarian organizations are evacuating their workers out of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid intensifying fighting between junta troops and the rebel ethnic Arakan Army near the state capital and in several other townships.

Officials from U.N. agencies and international NGOs cited security concerns to Radio Free Asia but also travel restrictions and disconnected internet and mobile phone networks as the reasons for moving workers to the commercial capital of Yangon.

“We have some teams and projects that cannot carry out their work. So, we decided to relocate them for their own safety,” an international humanitarian organization official who wishes to be anonymous told RFA.

“We will return once the situation becomes stable again,” the official said. “It is temporary. For now, we are prioritizing our staff’s safety. It does not mean we are exiting from Rakhine state permanently.”

The move came as the military junta’s National Defense and Security Council on Wednesday extended its state emergency order for six more months, according to a report from junta-affiliated Myanmar Radio and Television.

Min Aung Hlaing cited the country’s unusual and unstable situation in his request, which came a day before the third anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup d’etat.

The shadow National Unity Government and ethnic armed resistance groups said in a joint statement on Wednesday that they will continue to work together toward ending military dictatorship and building a federal democratic union.

The statement included six political objectives, including the ending of the armed forces’ involvement in politics and ensuring that all armed forces operate solely under the command of a civilian government elected through democratic processes.

The statement also vowed to institute a system of transitional justice to address injustices inflicted upon innocent parties throughout the three-year conflict.

Fresh U.S. sanctions

The United States, meanwhile, imposed new sanctions on four individuals and two entities – the Shwe Byain Phyu Group and the Myanma Five Star Line shipping firm.

The sanctions are aimed at depriving the military regime “of the resources it needs to conduct its attacks against its own people,” Treasury Under Secretary Brian Nelson said.

There are around 40 humanitarian organizations, including U.N. agencies, in Rakhine. Most NGOs have offices in Sittwe, the state capital, where many residents began leaving last week as recent fighting moved closer to the city. 

The organizations also have branch offices in Kyauktaw, Pauktaw, Rathedaung and several other townships. Those offices are being shut down because of the heavy fighting, several NGO staff members told RFA.

ENG_BUR_RakhineEvacuation_01312024.2.JPEG
Junta tanks seized by the Arakan Army at junta camps in Paletwa township on Jan. 18, 2024. (Arakan Army Military Desk)

Renewed attacks by the Arakan Army in November on police outposts and junta convoys prompted the military to set up security checkpoints on roads and waterways throughout Rakhine. 

Junta officials have also banned staff from humanitarian agencies from traveling around the state to deliver aid to hungry and shelterless residents. That has halted the flow of medicine, fuel and other basic commodities throughout Rakhine, which has struggled to recover from Cyclone Mocha in May. 

‘There will be famine’

People in the Nghat Chaung internally displaced persons camp in Pauktaw township are facing severe food shortages, according to one resident.

“We haven’t received any food aid for over two months,” the resident said. “We live without food for a while. And we are not allowed to go out of the camp. We are having extreme health problems.”

Similarly, Rohingya from Sittwe, Buthidaung and Maungdaw also told RFA that they are no longer receiving aid from international agencies.

An official from an organization helping the displaced in Rakhine also said that there are many people in the camps “who are barely surviving and living without any food.” He urged the UN and international humanitarian agencies to put more pressure on the junta to allow aid shipments.

“If the situation doesn’t change, there will be famine in many areas,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Volunteers and officials helping the displaced in Rakhine told RFA that there are as many as 300,000 displaced persons in the state. 

RFA called Hla Thein, the junta’s spokesperson for Rakhine, to ask about the blockage of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of NGO staff, but his phone was turned off.

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Aung Naing. Edited by Matt Reed.

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