Flare-up in Fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine State Takes Heavy Toll on Civilians

myanmar-unexploded-rocket-mrauk-u-mar16-2019.jpg Villagers look at an unexploded rocket from fighting between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, March 16, 2019.

Fighting in war-torn Rakhine state on Thursday drove residents and students from villages in Mrauk-U township as Myanmar soldiers looted and destroyed property, said affected residents as rights groups warned of deteriorating conditions for civilians.

Clashes ensued in the township’s Kyauktwin Gone village following a mine blast targeting government soldiers who are battling the rebel Arakan Army (AA), a mostly ethnic Rakhine force that seeks greater autonomy in the state, villagers said.

“The military regiment was resting near Poephyu Kyun village,” said a Kyauktwin Gone resident who requested anonymity for fear of his safety. “They were trying to cross the [Kaladan] river to Panmyaung village on other side by motorboat.”

The first boat transported 50 soldiers, but when it returned to pick up the others, the landmine exploded, he said.

“Right after the explosion, we heard the firing of heavy and light artillery,” the villager said. “No one was hit, though several houses were. I think they randomly fired back in the direction from which the blast came.”

Some mortar shells from the fighting fell into Kyauktwin Gone village, prompting residents to immediately hide, while those from Poephyu Kyun and nearby Myayeik Kyun villages fled.

Other members of the Myanmar military regiment, which has been stationed in Panmyaung village on the other side of the river, also fired at the AA, the local said.

The clashes forced the cancellation of examinations at Panmyaung High School scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The Myanmar military also said Wednesday that it had arrested 14 people suspected of assisting the AA in attacking a government army convoy as it passed though Myaungbwe village in Mrauk-U township on Saturday, the Myanmar Times reported.

The suspects have been turned over to township police and face criminal charges.

The AA used remote-controlled landmines to blow up several military vehicles and then fired at the soldiers, injuring several and destroying two trucks, said the report, citing a statement issued by the Myanmar military.

It also said that the bodies of two AA soldiers were found after the clash.

Residents flee villages in Myebon

Eleven consecutive days of fighting in Sanyin village of Rakhine’s Myebon township meanwhile forced residents to flee, residents said, adding that Myanmar soldiers troops entered the community in late February and destroyed their property.

Resident Shwe Than Aye said those who remained behind to try to prevent the theft and damage of their property now face food shortages.

“They would enter the village when no one was here, and then destroy property,” she said. “That’s why I could not flee my home and decided to remain.”

Mortar shells from heavy artillery fired during a battle about a mile away from the village on Tuesday and on Wednesday morning exploded in the community, she said

“Sometimes we have to hide in the bomb shelter to survive the shelling blasts,” Shwe Than Aye said.

The Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC), a relief group tallying the number of displaced and dead civilians, said that the fighting has displaced about 130,000 people in Rakhine and adjacent Chin state since early 2019, and has caused more than 100 deaths and about 300 injuries.

The Rakhine state government estimates that about 50,000 people have been displaced since fighting escalated in 2019, counting only those who are housed in displacement camps and not villagers who have sought shelter in villages and monasteries.

Fourteen civilians were killed and 25 injured in the seven-day period from Feb. 26 to March 3, according to a tally by RFA.

Civilians have blamed the casualties on Myanmar troops, who in turn have denied they caused the deaths and injuries.

But REC secretary Zaw Zaw Tun said both armies are responsible.

“We’ve heard all kinds of news about the armed conflict, [but] there has been shooting from both sides near the villages,” he told RFA. “The ethnic armed groups should avoid all kinds of military activities near the villages. Both sides are responsible for the casualties.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said Arakan soldiers have never initiated offensives near villages and have tried to protect civilians.

“We have plans to protect our civilians as much as possible,” he said. “The Myanmar military is massacring Rakhine civilians who are not involved in the fighting out of retribution and racial hatred.”

“If they keep doing that, the Rakhine people will lose their patience, and then they will see the consequences,” he added, but did not elaborate.

Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told RFA Tuesday that government forces only launch attacks in response to shooting by the AA.

“No one would waste the bullets if there was no initial shooting. That’s very obvious,” he said.

“We fire back only if there is a battle,” he added. “They have undertaken many provocative actions such as mine attacks and ambush shooting against our troops. Military troops will fire back if they have been shot at first. ”

‘Horrible human rights violations’

Attorney Zaw Zaw Min from the Rakhine Human Rights Promotion Group said the government must step in to stop the armed conflict from taking a toll on civilians.

“The government should get involved,” he said. “We have witnessed horrible human rights violations during the conflict such as civilian casualties and the detention of those suspected of [aiding the enemy].”

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement about the last month’s surge in fighting in Rakhine state on Wednesday, echoing the call for action to end the deteriorating situation.

HRW also called on government officials to end a mobile internet blackout that has slowed information-gathering and affected about one million people.

“The Myanmar military and the Arakan Army need to take immediate steps to minimize harm to civilians during the fighting and allow aid to reach all villages and communities in need,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The government should immediately restore full internet access so that abuses can be reported, and aid agencies can do their jobs.”

On Feb. 3, officials reinstated a blockade of internet services in Rakhine’s Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Myebon townships and in Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state. Four other Rakhine townships — Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Minbya — have had mobile internet service blocked since June 2019.

HRW also noted that the fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA is governed by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which apply to both national armed forces and non-state armies.

These laws prohibit the warring parties from attacking civilians and damaging their property, and obligate them to facilitate the transfer of humanitarian aid and ensure the free movement of relief workers, the group said.

Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Khaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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