Myanmar government troops conducted an offensive with heavy artillery and airstrikes against the Arakan Army (AA) near a village in war-torn Rakhine state’s Ponnagyun township Wednesday afternoon, in an escalation of a conflict that flared up late last year, the rebel group’s spokesman said.
“Jet fighters bombed [us] throughout the night after 9 p.m.,” said AA spokesman Khine Thukha about the attack near Buddhaw village. “There were total of 10 bombings.”
“Intense fighting occurred this morning in the same area where the fighting took place yesterday,” he said, adding that the hostilities left casualties on both sides, though details were unavailable.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman of the Myanmar military’s Western Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, was not available for comment.
The latest clash forced about 300 Buddhaw villagers to flee, while residents from at least six villages along the Yangon-Sittwe Highway that runs through Ponnagyun sought refuge at homes of their relatives, said village administrator Maung Kyaw Hlaing.
“Fighter planes were attacking throughout the entire night,” he said. “All the villagers, including children, had to flee and are now staying at the Yoetayoke Monastery. Nobody's left in the village.”
Hla Maung Thein, a resident of Auk Myat Lay village, about three miles from Buddhaw, said people in his community heard the sound of airplanes and gunfire in the distance, but not everyone fled.
“If we had left, no one would have been in the village,” he said. “Someone had to guard the village.”
Hla Maung, a resident of Aung Mingalar village, said those who sought shelter in Yoetayouk Monastery need food supplies.
“A lot of people in Yoetayouk Monastery, but we don’t have the lists with their [names] and numbers,” he said. “We have to purchase some food, and some is being provided. Food is mainly needed because there is a food shortage.”
An escalation in hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA, a Buddhist Rakhine army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state, since late 2018 has left an undetermined number of people dead and displaced more than 12,000, according to estimates by local and official sources in Rakhine state.
A deadly AA assault on police outposts in northern Rakhine in January that killed 13 officers and wounded nine others compelled the Myanmar government to order thousands of its troops into the region to “crush” the Arakan fighters.
Another such attack by the AA on a police outpost Ponnagyun’s Yoetayoke on March 9 village left nine officers dead and injured two others.
Earlier this week, government spokesman Zaw Htay Zaw Htay told reporters that the Rakhine crisis is a growing concern in terms of security, development, and the nation’s transition to democracy.
He also said the AA is welcome to sign the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), an accord with the Myanmar military signed by 10 other ethnic armies, even though the government has so far excluded the Arakan force from the peace process.
Khine Thukha noted that despite the government’s offer, the Myanmar Army continues to launch offensives which Arakan soldiers must defend through counterattacks.
Abducted farm worker dies
Also on Thursday, the relatives of Hla Maung Win, an ill 23-year-old farm worker from Kyaung Daung village in Rakhine’s Minbya township believed to be abducted Tuesday by government soldiers while en route to the hospital in Mrauk-U township, said the man had died.
Maung Win died of malaria and was buried at a cemetery in Mrauk-U, according to the family’s wishes, they said.
When he fell unconscious on Tuesday, six volunteers from a local funeral service organization and three drivers transported him to Mrauk-U Hospital, but on the way, Myanmar troops abducted them, according to their relatives and other villagers.
RFA has not been able to independently confirm that government forces are responsible for the disappearances.
The reason for the abductions remain unclear, and Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s Western Command was unavailable for comment.
Kyaw Hla Thein, the dead man’s father, said that Hla Maung Win would not have died had he been able to reach a clinic or hospital.
“He would have gotten better if he had had proper treatment, but he didn’t get the chance,” Kyaw Hla Thein said. “What had happened is because of the arrest. The army is to be blamed.”
The man’s mother, Wai Mar Sein, said, “Losing a son makes me feel so much pain.”
A staffer at the Mrauk-U Hospital reported said that police officers brought Kyaw Hla Thein’s body there on Wednesday night, and that the dead man was wearing a police uniform that officers returned to collect Thursday morning.
RFA could not independently verify the claim.
“It’s totally unacceptable, said Kyaung Daung village administrator Thein Shwe Maung. “The patient should have been sent to the hospital right away.”
“If they [the police] were suspicious, they could have [interrogated] him at the hospital,” he said. “But if they had taken him to an army compound, then we regard that as a clear violation of human rights.”
Myoma Police Station in Mrauk-U told Thein Shwe Maung that the missing volunteers and drivers are in police custody, he said.
When the village administrator had contacted the same police station a day earlier, however, officers said the missing persons were not in their custody.
RFA called the police station, but no one there would take the call.
Hla Maung Win’s family said their deceased relatives and the other detainees were not involved in politics or had links to the Arakan Army.
“We as parents are angry at the arrest of innocent people,” said Maung Kyaw Thar, father of detainee Zaw Naing Htay. “I am pained that I haven’t seen my son yet.”
Reported by Zarni Htun and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.