Residents of a village in western Myanmar’s Rathedaung township on Friday accused the Myanmar military of burning down houses in the community while carrying out clearance operations in the area amid ongoing fighting with the Arakan Army (AA).
Myanmar soldiers and the AA, which seeks greater autonomy in the state, engaged in an armed clash near Amyet Taung villagearound midday, after which the Myanmar Army conducted clearance operations in nearby villages, they said.
During the operations, soldiers torched some homes in Amyet Taung, forcing all residents except for the elderly to flee to other communities. More than 900 people from over 100 households live in the community, residents said.
The structures in Amyet Taung village were torched 15 days after the government shut down internet service in northern Rakhine state as a security measure, residents said.
“The battle occurred in the mountains six furlongs [0.75 miles] from the village,” said Amyet Taung resident Aung Kyaw Thein. “I heard gunfire from both heavy and light weapons. They fired for half an hour.”
“After they [Myanmar soldiers] stopped firing, they entered the village and began burning houses on the east and west sides,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They also fired some shots in the village.”
No injuries were reported, Aung Kyaw Thein said.
Khin Maung Latt, a lawmaker in Myanmar’s upper house of parliament who represents constituents in Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships, confirmed that the villagers reported to him about the military burning their community.
During the clash, which occurred around noon in the Win Hla Aung mountains near Amyet Taung village, residents heard firing from both heavy and light weapons and fled, he said.
“Afterwards, at about 2.30 p.m., the military troops came into the village and burned down some houses,” Khin Maung Latt said. “They [the villagers] said they saw smoke coming from the village. They have left the village for now. ”
RFA’s Myanmar Service could not independently confirm that Myanmar forces torched the village or the number of structures burned down.
Human rights groups used satellite imagery to document the burning of houses and whole villages in Rakhine state by Myanmar troops in 2017, when the target of the clearance operations was Rohingya Muslims. That scorched-earth campaign killed thousands and drove some 750,000 Rohingyas across the border to Bangladesh, where they now live in crowded, unsafe camps.
“They [Myanmar soldiers] burned the houses, assuming that AA members were residing in Amyet Taung village,” said a school teacher who declined to be named out of fear of retribution. “But it wasn’t true.”
“It only affects the civilians,” the teacher said. “The villagers are now fleeing their homes and are in trouble. Some villagers who fell unconscious were sent to the hospital.”
Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command, which is responsible for Rakhine state, suggested that artillery shells fired in the area near Amyet Taung village may have caused the fires.
“The village might have gotten hit by shells fired by us or by AA troops,” he said. “Since the houses in the village are built with bamboo and thatch roofs, the explosions from the rockets could have started the fires. I can’t say for sure or any more than that.”
Hostilities between the two armies, which intensified in later 2018 and again in January, have caused several civilian deaths and injuries and displaced roughly 35,000 people in the region, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
About 14 villagers have died while in the custody of Myanmar soldiers or police as a result of injuries sustained by torture during interrogations to determine if they were AA members or supporters.
ANP wants cease-fire
Meanwhile, the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant political party in Rakhine state which represents the interests of the ethnic Rakhine people, called on the Myanmar Army on Wednesday for a cease-fire and an end to arbitrary detentions and torture in the northern part of the state.
They want the government military to extend its current unilateral cease-fire in five other military command divisions of the country to northern Rakhine state.
The military declared the one-way suspension of hostilities in December 2018 to try to give a boost to Myanmar’s foundering peace process now hindered by ongoing civil wars in other states, but excluded Rakhine state. The cease-fire has been extended for two additional months.
“The cease-fire has been extended for five military command divisions, but left out the Western Regional Command of which northern Rakhine state is a part,” ANP chairman Thar Tun Hla told RFA.
The ANP also appealed to the government to provide adequate food supplies to internally displaced persons (IDPs ) who have been forced to leave their villages because of the fighting, he said.
“We [also] appealed to the government to allow local and international NGOs to work without restrictions in accessing the displaced population and providing assistance,” he said.
The party also asked the military to stop arbitrary arrests and refrain from torturing civilians detained on suspicion of having links to the AA, and to punish those involved in beatings of detainees who have died while in custody, Thar Tun Hla said.
The ANP also wants to see the restoration of internet service to nine townships in Rakhine and Chin states, cut off under a government order in June, and for Myanmar to include the AA in its peace talks with other ethnic armies
Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint’s office, told RFA that the impetus is now on the AA to join in the country’s peace negotiations.
“With regard to ending the conflicts, concerned parties are required to join the peace talks,” he said at a press conference in Naypyidaw on Friday.
The government is now working on signing a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the Northern Alliance coalition of four ethnic armies, including the AA, that have joined forces in battling national troops.
“We have given them the draft,” Zaw Htay said. “After they talk over the draft and confirm their agreement to sign it, the conflict in Rakhine will be stopped. So they will need to come to the peace table. If they don’t, and if they keep fighting on the ground, the conflict will be prolonged.”
As for the ANP’s request that northern Rakhine be included in the temporary cease-fire, he said, “The military has given reasons why Rakhine state is not included in the cease-fire, so I don’t need to comment further.”
Zaw Htay also emphasized that the internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states is temporary.
“But we can’t say how long it will last,” he said. “The shutdown has now gone on for more than 10 days. We are now reviewing the situation.”
IDP camp flooded
Meanwhile, many civilians displaced by the war who are holed up in temporary camps now find their shelters flooded by Myanmar’s annual monsoonal rains that occur from mid-May to late October.
More than 1,500 IDPs (internally displaced persons) were affected by flooding on Thursday when the temporary Sinbawgaing camp in Rakhine’s Mrauk-U township beside the Lemro River overflowed its banks on Thursday, said camp director Nandathara, a Buddhist monk.
“About half of the small houses in that relief camp are now flooded and are inhabitable,” he told RFA. “Because the camp has been built on the sandbanks between the Lemro River and Sinbawgaing village, the water that came down from the mountains, as it does every year, inundated them.”
Some of the 3,000 people among the 500 families who live in the camp are now being moved to safer places in nearby villages, he said.
IDP Maung Win Tin said some of the people who had to leave the camp are trying to build new shelters on higher ground.
“The river waters are rising, and we are in need of plastic sheets that we can use for roofing,” he said. “We need immediate help. We will have to build at least 100 houses for the IDPs.”
According to Rakhine State government data, about 22,000 people from more than 5,200 families had taken refuge in 82 temporary relief camps as of June 24. The government said it would set up permanent IDP camps for these people, but only 1,100 have expressed a desire to live there.
“Of course, we will resettle those who had agreed to come and live in the government-sponsored camps, and we will give priority support to only those who live here,” said Win Myint, Rakhine state’s minister of municipal affairs. “We will provide them with food and security as well as health care programs.”
Reported by Htet Arkar, Nayrein Kyaw, and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service, Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.