The rebel Arakan Army is forcing citizens to donate rice or sell it at huge markdowns in western Myanmar’s Chin State, where food is scarce and transportation networks have broken down due to constant fighting with the country’s military, according to a statement by a local rights NGO.
The AA has been embroiled in conflict with Myanmar’s military in neighboring Rakhine state since 2018, and fighting has spilled over into Paletwa, a strategic river town on Chin state’s border with Rakhine.
“Beginning on 14 September 2020, the AA [Arakan Army] began forcibly collecting two baskets of rice (approx. 10 kg [22 pounds]) per household from five villages along the Kaladan River in Paletwa Township," said the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) in a statement Tuesday.
In most of the villages, the AA forced residents to either hand over the rice or pay 10,000 kyat ($8). Villagers were also told to transport the rice to a supply depot near the AA military camp in the area and were paid 2,000 kyat ($1.50) upon delivery, the CHRO said.
According to the Burmese-language version of the statement, a local resident told the CHRO that the AA was paying 10,000 kyat, effectively buying the rice at a discounted rate to those who delivered the two baskets. The English-language statement said that the AA had, however, been buying rice from villagers elsewhere in the area, paying 40,000 kyat (U.S. $30) for a 50-kilogram bag, which would cost about 75,000 kyat ($60) in the local market.
“Compounding the situation, at present villagers are limited in the amount of rice that can be purchased, determined by local authorities,” the CHRO said.
CHRO Field Director Salai Terah confirmed the rice tax to RFA’s Myanmar Service, saying, “They collected two baskets of rice per household on Sept. 14 and Oct. 14, asking the villagers to deliver it to a place in the forest near their camp.”
Procuring rice to pay the tax has been a struggle in Paletwa as most of Chin state is remote and transportation networks are lacking. Armed conflict and the coronavirus pandemic have made matters worse, with local villagers saying it has taken them months to come up with enough rice.
Even those who live in towns have said buying rice is difficult due to shortages caused by constant fighting.
Chin state’s Development Minister Soe Htet said that the forceful collection of rice was an undue burden on local civilians.
Mai Nang Wai, a spokeswoman for the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee for Chin IDPs (internally displaced persons), told RFA that extorting rice during a food crisis was “much more than a burden.”
“These villagers don’t even have enough food to feed themselves. Some of them have no rice at all and are waiting for the rice we collect from donors,” she said.
“The local residents cannot accept this, because this is Chin state and these people are Chin people,” she said, drawing an ethnic distinction between the Paletwa residents and the ethnic Rakhines that make of the AA.
U Teint Sar, a resident of Paletwa, told RFA he heard that some villagers have borrowed money to buy rice for the AA collection from a truck that arrived from nearby Sami Township recently.
“They are not giving rice to the AA from what they have, but out of fear. Since they have no rice to give, they are borrowing,” he said.
But AA spokesperson Khine Thukha has denied that it is forcing local civilians to donate rice.
He told RFA that the AA’s members have been instructed to buy rice from villagers at market price. He also said that the current season was the time for new crops, so the villagers are selling their old rice for what he said was 40,000 ($30) kyat per basket, 5,000 kyat ($4) above market price.
A Yangon-based military analyst told RFA that it is common for armed groups to levy taxes on areas under their control.
“Where there are insurgents, the insurgents collect taxes. Those who cannot accept it react,” said Maung Maung Soe.
“Since there are ethnic Khumi Chins in AA-controlled areas, it is possible that these Chin people will react with a view that the AA is an ethnic Rakhine army and not Chin. All ethnic armed groups, not just the AA, collect taxes in areas under their control,” he said.
According to activists working to help local civilians in Paletwa Township, AA has been collecting rice in more than 20 villages in the Township.
Travel to and from Paletwa, mostly by water, requires permission from the military.
Nga Sha village, where the AA is also accused of forcibly collecting rice, is a five-hour boat ride from Paletwa. RFA attempted to contact villagers there for comment but none consented to interviews due to security concerns.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Thane Aung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.