More than 180 people from Paletwa township in western Myanmar’s Chin state have fled to Bangladesh this week to escape fighting between government troops and the ethnic rebel Arakan Army, an NGO worker said Thursday.
The group who left their homes in two villages out of fear of an attack by military helicopters includes members of the minority Rakhine, Khami, and Cho ethnic groups, among whom are 50 children said to be very ill, said Win Thein from the NGO Bangladesh Human Rights Commission, which is providing assistance to the refugees.
The group entered Ruma township in Bangladesh’s Bandarban district on Feb. 3 and 4, he said, adding that although the Bangladeshi government has accepted them, the refugees have not yet received any government help.
Some of the refugees said the military used helicopters during the hostilities and torched civilian homes, Win Thein said.
“One of our commission members has visited the refugees, and he said that the government army opened fire from helicopters,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They said the military didn’t shoot into the village, but rather into the forests.”
The villagers left their communities "out of fear" and spent the night in the forest, he said.
“When they returned the next day, they saw huge pillars of smoke from their village and found it burned down,” Win Thein said. “As they didn’t dare go into the village, they fled into Bangladesh, they said.”
Government forces told RFA’s Myanmar Service that they began clearance operations in Paletwa on account of the fighting between the AA and the national army, but an army spokesman denied that helicopters have been used.
“We did some clearance operations for regional security, but we haven’t had fighting there for the past two days, and we didn’t use helicopters during the fighting,” said Myanmar military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun.
“It is impossible that government troops burned down villages because we didn’t have fighting for two days,” he said.
Spillover of fighting
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the villagers fled because the “government army attacked [us] with heavy weapons from Jan. 22 to the end of the month.”
“We took these people from their village to the border, and they are now in Bangladesh,” he said. “The civil society organizations in Bangladesh have been helping them.”
Hostilities between the AA and Myanmar Army have recently spilled over into Paletwa township in southern Chin state from adjacent northern Rakhine state. They have driven about 6,000 civilians in the region from their homes and into other villages or farther afield since late November, according to local relief groups.
When RFA asked Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, about the latest refugees from Chin state, he said to ask the Rakhine state government.
“I don’t know about it because I have been busy with other matters,” he said. “I will answer you when I know the details about it.”
On Tuesday, Bangladesh summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to protest the arrival of the latest group of refugees, and tightened security near the border to prevent more from entering, Reuters reported.
Bangladesh already houses over one million Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, including more than 725,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown by security forces in northern Rakhine state in 2017.
Curfew in southern Chin state
Meanwhile, Chin state authorities have warned local residents in Matupi township, north of Paletwa, to stay away from military camps and refrain from hunting with guns during nights and early mornings.
Si Laung, administrator of Ngalam ward, said Thursday that the order was issued as a deterrent to avoid unwanted problems between local youths and soldiers deployed in Matupi.
“There are currently a lot of soldiers in Matupi,” he said. “Because there is a heavy military presence, we are requesting that no one go near the military posts between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. because we fear youngsters might get into trouble if they pass by.”
Authorities have also made the town golf course off limits, prohibited locals from taking photographs of a nearby military base, and banned people from flying drones in the area, even during daytime, he said.
“The golf course is a public recreational area, and the mountain-top area overlooks the town as well as the military base, so taking photos with the military base in the background and flying drones are not allowed,” Si Laung said.
Though residents fear the military presence in the region, Zo Bwe, chairman of the Chin state parliament, said that there is no reason for alarm because the army has just launched operations in Paletwa from its base in Matupi.
Reported by Htet Arkar and Thiri Min Zin. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.