An armed clash between Myanmar soldiers and rebel Arakan Army (AA) fighters in a village in Mrauk-U township in western Myanmar’s violence-ridden Rakhine state on Friday left two villagers dead and seven others injured, local residents and a Rakhine lawmaker said.
The latest skirmish in a conflict that heated up late last year came as a government spokesman gave a partial tally of casualties. Fighting has claimed the lives of 58 AA soldiers, 27 policemen, and a dozen civilians, while displacing 17,354 people, President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said.
Area residents blamed the government army for Friday’s carnage in Aukthakan village, though both Myanmar and Arakan forces denied responsibility, saying they are trying to avoid civilian casualties in their ongoing clashes.
The villagers told RFA’s Myanmar Service that a combined force of Myanmar Army and police fired their weapons from a location near Teinnyo bridge into the village located east of the bridge in northern Mrauk-U township.
Local witnesses said the joint military and police force came from the direction of Teinnyo village along the Yangon-Sittwe Highway and fired into a shop about a half-mile from the entrance of Aukthakan village, killing one woman and seriously injuring another woman who is in critical condition at Sittwe Hospital.
The deceased woman, 25-year-old Sabai from Kone Baung village in Yan Byae township, operated an eatery with her family near the highway.
“The soldiers came from the direction of Teinnyo village to Aukthakan,” said Aung Moe Linn, Sabai's husband. “They started firing soon after passing our shop. My wife was hit, and I couldn’t save her because I was hiding in another part of the shop. When I went to look at her, I found her dead.”
Kyaw Thein Htun, secretary of Mrauk-U’s Ga Yunar Hlaing blood donors group, said he helped transport the injured woman, Pauk Sa, to Mrauk-U Hospital, though she was later transferred to Sittwe Hospital.
“We tried to save the one who was still alive and carried her to hospital,” he said. “The patient was wounded on her head and on the right side of her chest. She had another wound on her right thigh.”
A 70-year-old man was also killed by gunfire as government troops entered the village for clearance operations, said Rakhine state parliament lawmaker Tun Thar Sein, who represents Mrauk-U township.
Two of the other wounded villagers are being treated at a hospital in Teinnyo village, while the remaining four are in Mrauk-U Hospital, residents said.
‘There was no battle’
Colonel Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA that he did not have any information about the dead and injured civilians, and that government troops had responded to initial shots fired by the AA.
“It was around 7:15 a.m.,” he said. “There was a military column assigned for security moving towards Aukthakan, and AA members fired from the north of the village. Then, when our troops fired back at them, they ran into Aukthakan village. ”
Myanmar soldiers chased after the Arakans to clear them out and were attacked by an AA landmine explosion at the entrance to the village, he said.
RFA could not independently verify whether the shooting was reciprocal.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said Arakan soldiers had not engaged in hostilities with the Myanmar Army and accused government forces of concocting the story.
“We didn’t have any clashes with government troops,” he told RFA. “There was no battle that involved us in that area.”
“I think the Myanmar military is committing atrocities against the local Rakhine population based on racially motivated hatred,” he added. “They are committing a war crime.”
Rules of engagement
When asked what the Myanmar military is doing to prevent civilians from becoming casualties, Zaw Min Tun said superior officers have issued orders for soldiers to avoid nonmilitary targets per the rules of engagement specifying the circumstances and limitations under which the forces will engage in combat with the enemy.
“In the military, there is a hierarchy for administration,” he said. “There are also different levels in giving orders and supervision. There are also commanders of different ranks who monitor whether the rules are being followed on the ground.”
Zaw Min Tun also said that the AA has used villagers as human shields during the armed conflict in Rakhine on 16 occasions since fighting between the two forces picked up in early January.
But Khine Thukha said the AA has always been cautious about causing civilian causalities.
“Avoiding civilian causalities during armed conflict is our top priority, so we always avoid fighting in the villages,” he said. “We always issue warnings repeatedly beforehand if we take action on something, so I can say that we are fighting fairly. We are doing our best to protect civilian lives.”
Lawmaker Tun Thar Sein said that rank-and-file government soldiers do not always follow orders from above.
“Many civilians ran away in fear when they heard the shooting,” he said of the gunfire in Aukthakan village. “The military views whoever runs away with suspicion. I think this is how it had happened. Orders from the top aren’t followed properly at the bottom.”
When residents of nearby villagers heard the gunfire in Aukthakan, they fled their homes to take refuge in other communities.
On Friday evening local time, the Myanmar military commander’s office said soldiers had detained five people from Aukthakan suspected of being AA members and were interrogating them at a police station.
At a press conference on March 25, Myanmar military spokesmen said soldiers had attacked villages and civilian homes that AA troops used as covers as well as sites near ancient temples that the Arakans used as bases from which to launch offensives.
The AA meanwhile said it would try to take the cases of the Myanmar military’s attacks on Rakhine civilians to The Hague-based International Criminal Court for prosecution for committing what it called “war crimes.”
Zaw Htay gives figures
The same day as the attack in Aukthakan village, President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay held a news conference in Naypyidaw about the hostilities between Myanmar forces and the AA, an ethnic armed organization fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
A total of 103 clashes have occurred between the two armies since Jan. 4, the day on which Arakan soldiers launched deadly attacks on police outposts that killed 13 officers. The Myanmar government responded to the incident by labeling the AA a terrorist group and instructing its forces to crush the ethnic army.
The armed assault led to an escalation in fighting, resulting in an increase in casualties on both sides as well as civilian deaths.
Since that time, there have been 58 AA soldiers killed, 27 policemen killed, and 12 civilian deaths, Zaw Htay said.
He also said 26 police officers and 20 civilians had been injured.
The Myanmar military said it would issue its own casualty list at a later unspecified date.
Zaw Htay also said there are now more than 17,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Rakhine due to the fighting, though local relief and disaster management workers estimate the number to be as high as 22,000 with about 16,000 housed in temporary camps across the region.
“IDP camps are scattered here and there around the region,” he said. “They should be in convenient areas so people can get effective management and support, such as food and health care.”
Some Rakhine-based civil society organizations are working together with the state government and Myanmar’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to provide supplies and services at several camps, he said.
Relief workers have told RFA that they cannot travel to certain areas of Rakhine because of safety concerns amid the fighting, and that the growing number of IDPs in camps face acute shortages of food, drinking water, and other basic supplies like tarpaulins.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.