Humanitarian groups called for a cease-fire in Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state on Tuesday after a World Health Organization driver died from wounds sustained when gunmen fired on him and another health worker as they drove from the conflict zone to the major city Yangon carrying coronavirus test samples, health officials said.
The vehicle was attacked Monday after the pair drove over a suspension bridge in Minbya township, though it is unclear whether Myanmar soldiers or rebel Arakan Army (AA) troops were behind the shooting. Both sides blamed the other for the ambush that killed local WHO employee Pyae Sone Win Maung and injured health department worker Aung Myo Oo.
The killing prompted 16 international humanitarian organizations to call for the two armies to lay down their arms and for the government to allow aid workers widespread and unfettered access across Rakhine state and elsewhere, so they can reach communities to help counter the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The incident in Minbya township on April 20 demonstrates the urgent need for armed actors in Myanmar to lay down their weapons, heeding the call of the U.N. Secretary General for a global cease-fire,” the groups said in a joint statement issued Tuesday, referring to U.N chief António Guterres’ early April appeal for a cessation of armed conflict around the world during the coronavirus crisis.
“The ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states between the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and the Arakan Army is causing an increasing number of civilian casualties, while severely hampering access to health care as well as other efforts to reach communities with much needed assistance in the midst of a global pandemic,” the statement said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) appealed to the Myanmar government and the military to allow U.N. investigators to access the scene of the shooting to conduct an independent investigation.
“The death of this WHO staff member as he was driving COVID-19 swabs to be tested illustrates the travesty of continuing war amidst a global pandemic,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, in a statement.
“Since it's unclear who killed Pyae Sone Win Maung, it is imperative the Myanmar civilian government and Tatmadaw immediately give U.N. investigators unfettered access to Minbya township so they can conduct an independent and impartial investigation,” he said.
Intense fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA, which seeks greater autonomy for the state’s ethnic Rakhine population, has raged for more than 15 months. The conflict zone is under lockdown, and the government has suspended mobile internet service there as a security measure.
Pyae Sone Win Maung, 28, and Aung Myo Oo left Rakhine’s capital Sittwe in a U.N.-marked vehicle Monday morning to take the test samples to Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon.
Htay Win Maung, the deceased man's father, told RFA that he had received news that the vehicle his son was driving had been hit by gunfire.
“We were told that there were artillery blasts, and that they had been hit,” he said. “It was my son, the driver, and another person who is a health official.”
“The health official was just injured on the arm,” he added, “I don’t know the details of how my son got hit and killed.”
Tun Wai, health coordinator of nearby Min Ywa village, said a group of unfamiliar men in plainclothes brought the pair in a small vehicle to the local clinic.
“I had been looking for two WHO staffers when the vehicle arrived around 6:30 p.m.,” he said. “They said that the two patients they had transported were health department employees.”
Dr. Soe Win Paing, assistant director of Rakhine state’s Public Health Department, said the attack occurred at 5:30 p.m. and the two men were taken to Minbya Hospital 90 minutes later.
Both were treated at the hospital, but Pyae Sone Win Maung, who was hemorrhaging from his wounds, died just before 1 a.m., Soe Win Paing said.
Hospital staff would not permit RFA to speak with Aung Myo Oo.
On Tuesday afternoon, members of the Myanmar Red Cross transferred Aung Myo Oo and Pyae Son Win Maung's body to Sittwe.
Army, AA trade blame
Local authorities in Rakhine’s Minbya township said that Myanmar troops stationed near the Ramaung ferry port during the past year have been checking vehicles before they cross the suspension bridge.
A statement issued by the AA Monday night said Myanmar forces fired at the U.N. vehicle around 5:40 p.m. as it was driving across the bridge after guards at the security checkpoint allowed it to pass.
AA troops found the WHO vehicle stranded on the side of the road about an hour after the shooting and rescued the two injured men inside, the statement said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA that Arakan soldiers had nothing to do with the fatal shooting and that government soldiers who opened fire on the vehicle have implicated the AA to cover up their crime.
“The gunfire came from Myanmar military side,” he said. “They let that vehicle pass the security gate and opened fire on it from behind. This has nothing to do with us. … It is an attempt to implicate us for the crime they committed.”
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said AA troops opened fire on the vehicle after it passed through the security gate and drove along the road, and that national soldiers had no reason to shoot at it.
“Only AA troops open fire on vehicles driving on the road,” he said. “The military has never done that. The military has no reason to do that. There are both civilian vehicles and cargo trucks on the road. This was intentional.”
Zaw Min Tun said there had been a recent battle in the area near the bridge and that the AA frequently attacked Myanmar soldiers stationed there.
RFA could not independently confirm which side was responsible for the gunfire.
Lack of clear information
As of Tuesday, Myanmar registered 121 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five fatalities.
Journalists and NGO workers said the same day that the government has failed to provide clear and concise information to the public in its daily COVID-19 press releases and in recent announcements.
They pointed to the government having waited until 8 p.m. local time on April 19 to announce that factories would reopen the next day following mandatory shutdowns during the Buddhist New Year holiday.
The Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population then issued a murky notification that it would first make necessary inquiries at factories and companies between April 20 and 30, leaving workers uncertain as to whether they should return to their workplaces and whether they would be compensated if they did not.
“Because of this situation, conflicts between workers and factory owners arose,” said Thet Thet Aung, director of the worker help group Point of Future Light. “Many questions were raised, [and] the owners said there were no official statements.”
Journalist Thiha Thway noted that ordinary citizens often have difficulty understanding printed government announcements even if they reread them.
“Many people don’t understand the statements of government ministries after reading them just once,” he said. “They may read them many times, but they still don’t understand, and then they become confused and angry.”
This can lead to “rumors, more fear, and more anger,” he added.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.