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Rakhine villagers flee Tatmadaw attacks

By Ye Mon
January 14, 2016

Rakhine residents in two northern townships say they are living in fear and do not dare go out after dark after government troops forced locals to work as porters during ongoing operations against Arakan Army militants.

Refugees from fighting in Rakhine State stay at an IDP camp at Ywar Ma Pyin village in Mrauk-U township yesterday. (Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar Times)

Relief workers say more than 300 civilians, mostly Rakhine Buddhists, have fled their villages to the safety of monasteries following fighting from December 28 to January 4. Late last week the Tatmadaw warned that it intended to “eliminate” the ethnic armed group, and is reported to have sent in reinforcements. But so far the expected offensive has not materialised.

Locals described how Tatmadaw soldiers were going door to door looking for Arakan Army sympathisers in towns and villages, and sometimes seizing men to work as porters and guides.

U Nyi Pu Chay told The Myanmar Times he was among four men from Tha Hpan Gaing village in Kyauktaw township who were forcibly recruited to carry supplies for the Tatmadaw during fighting.

They were released and told not to return to the village for three years, he said.

“They didn’t tell us why we shouldn’t come again to our homes. Also I don’t know their battalion and where their camps are. But I can say for sure that they are from the military, not from the Arakan Army,” he said. He added that none of the men were tortured by the military but were forced to work for them.

“I’m really happy because they released us without killing,” he said.

Most of Tha Hpa Gaing’s 90 or so residents have fled. Some are staying at a monastery in Ywarma Pyin village in Kayuktaw township near the border with Mrauk-U. The monastery has been transformed into one of four makeshift camps for displaced people in the remote area.

Sayadaw U Thuwanna, a monk in charge of the Ywarma Pyin camp, said he had also heard that the villagers were banned from returning to their homes for three years, and is very worried for their future.

“I think donors can support the IDPs for one year. For the next years the donors cannot support them effectively. I fear we will have a situation like the Kachin IDPs,” the monk said, referring to Kachin State residents who have been stuck in IDP camps there for more than three years because of fighting.

Sayadaw U Pyinyar Nanda from Kyauktaw township said he suspected the Tatmadaw was more interested in forcibly recruiting porters than seeking out AA supporters in their door-to-door searches.

“In previous fighting the military acted like that with villagers,” he said.

Repeated attempts to contact the Tatmadaw’s “correct information” department and its psychological warfare department, which sometimes deal with the media, were to no avail.

A relative newcomer to Myanmar’s decades of civil wars with ethnic armed groups, the Arakan Army was founded in 2009 and is mainly based in the far north of the country in Kachin State where it is believed to source its weapons. It also farms out its fighters to other armed groups and has backed the Kachin Independence Army, as well as ethnic Chinese rebels in the Kokang border area of northern Shan State. Its stated aim is to protect the Buddhist Rakhine majority in their home state and to establish “peace, justice, freedom and development”.

It has offered a ceasefire in Shan State and dialogue, but their demands have been rejected and they were

excluded by the government from the “nationwide” ceasefire agreement signed by eight ethnic armed groups last October. The Tatmadaw says they must first surrender.

The military operations have raised the ire of the Arakan National Party which is focused on defending the interests of Buddhist Rakhine and swept the majority of elected seats in the state in the November 2015 elections, in part thanks to the government’s disenfranchisement of most Muslims.

U Aye Thar Aung, a member of the ANP central executive committee, told The Myanmar Times yesterday that he heard about the Tatmadaw arresting residents working on farms and rubber plantations on suspicion of supporting the AA insurgents.

“The Tatmadaw always used these ways to cut off supplies to rebels from the residents, which is why they drive them out of their homes,” he said. People were suffering violations of their human rights, he added.

U Khing Kung San, director of the Wan Lark Foundation which is helping IDPs in Mrauk-U, said the Tatmadaw had forced nine locals to act as guides, and later released them.

He said 72 people from Saydi Taung village had taken refuge in a monastery compound and were ordered by the authorities on January 13 to go back to their homes. He said most of the refugees wanted to return but they were afraid.

Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yangon, said, “OCHA is liaising closely with the relevant authorities and on January 7 led an inter-agency humanitarian assessment to the sites hosting the displaced people. While the most urgent needs are being met by local organisations and the authorities, the UN and international NGOs are ready to provide support if further humanitarian needs arise.”

Arakan Army Commander-in-Chief U Tun Myat Naing said in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy that tensions between the military and the ceasefire non-signatory groups would pose a “huge challenge” for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s incoming government.

“The next government should boldly take decisive action rather than trying not to offend the military. If they would avoid doing something because the military might not like it, their slogan – ‘time to change’ – will come to nothing and we will be at a political impasse. Therefore, they might need a great deal of courage, responsibility and solutions to overcome huge challenges,” he said.

Additional reporting by Wa Lone in Yangon

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