Two village administrators in Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state have been charged under the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law for allegedly having ties to the rebel Arakan Army, relatives of the men and officials said Wednesday.
The arrests come as Myanmar’s military is increasingly using the law to prosecute civilians and local officials for alleged ties to the ethnic armed force.
The Myanmar military has been stepping up its offensives in a 17-month-long campaign to crush the AA’s armed drive for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in the state.
On May 30, military and police forces detained and charged Maung Zaw, administrator of A-ngu Thit village, and Kyaw Myint, administrator of Ywathit Kay village, both in Myebon township, after an army commander summoned them to a meeting, their wives and Pe Than, a lawmaker from the township, told RFA.
They have been charged under sections 50(j) and 51(b) of the Counter-Terrorism Law, Pe Than said.
Section 50(j) pertains to offenses regarding the financing of terrorism and carries a prison sentence of 10 years to life, with the possibility of a fine. Section 51(b) includes offenses regarding unmarked plastic explosives and carries a five-to-10-year prison sentence, with or without a fine.
“The tactical commander of the military troops stationed in the region took away the two for a conversation,” Pe Than said. “They searched their houses while the officers were interrogating them.”
The pair was charged the following day and remanded by the court on Monday, he said.
Hla Thein Kyi, wife of Kyaw Myint, said she does not know why her husband was arrested, but surmised it had to do with accusations of ties to the AA, which the Myanmar government has declared an illegal association and a terrorist organization.
“He hasn’t come back home,” she told RFA. “They rummaged through the whole house. They went through all the documents related to his work, but they couldn’t find anything. We don’t know why he was arrested.”
“They don’t have any evidence against him,” she said. “We are so distressed. They have been bullying us like this. It would have been acceptable if he had been arrested because they had found some evidence connecting him to the AA.”
It remains unknown who filed the cases against Maung Zaw and Kyaw Myint.
RFA could not reach the commander of Myebon Town Police Station or Zarni Kyaw, administrator of Myebon township, for comment.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier Gen Zaw Min Tun said the interrogation of the two men revealed that they have ties to the AA.
“The authorities found through the interrogations that the two village administrators have connections to AA, and the government attorney decided to charge them under the Counter-Terrorism Law based on the findings,” he said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA that the charges are false.
“The two village administrators in detention have no connections to the AA,” he said, adding that they are ordinary civilians.
“It is unacceptable that the Myanmar military has consistently used the same law to charge innocent village administrators,” he said.
Officials consider quitting
Local residents said Myanmar soldiers posted to the police station have been conducting search operations in the area since May.
In 2019, many administrators resigned from their positions in other northern Rakhine townships, including Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, and Minbya, following the arrests of administrative officials amid the armed conflict.
Some administrators now say that they are terrified that Myanmar security forces will arbitrarily arrest them on the same accusations and that they are planning to resign.
“In my opinion, it would be best to resign,” said one village administrator who declined to give his name out of fear for his safety. “If they charge us, we can’t do anything. It could happen to us.”
Pe Than said the military should be more understanding of the delicate situation of village administrators who have to deal with all armed forces operating in their areas.
“They might have helped the members of insurgent groups out of concern for their own safety, while they have had to do the same when the military showed up in their villages,” he said.
“The government and military should understand their precarious situation between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “If the authorities keep arresting and charging the administrators, it will drive them into a corner, and they all might resign. Then, the administrative mechanism in the region would collapse.”
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun dismissed concerns that administrative system in Rakhine state could break down if many administrators resigned out of concern for their safety.
“Many people will line up to replace the ones who have quit,” he said.
AA raids on police outposts in late 2018 and in early 2019 triggered the conflict in northern Rakhine state — a region already devastated by the Myanmar army’s campaign to expel 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Scores of civilians have been killed and hundreds more have been injured by mortar shells, landmines, and other explosives since 2019, while over 160,000 others have been displaced by the fighting, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
The military and the Myanmar government have also charged civilians and journalists under the Counter-Terrorism Law amid the hostilities.
In May, five ethnic Rakhine men who were videoed while being beaten by soldiers on a naval vessel were charged under the law for having suspected ties to the AA, though their relatives and friends said the charges were false.
Journalists Thar Loon Zaung Htet of Khit Thit News and Khine Myat Kyaw of Narinjara News were charged in March for violating the Counter-Terrorism Law by interviewing members of the AA, forcing the pair to go into hiding to avoid arrest.
Similarly, police arrested Voice of Myanmar editor-in-chief Nay Myo Lin in Mandalay the same month for the publication of an interview with the AA spokesman, though prosecutors later dropped the charges.
Reported by RFA Myanmar Service, Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.