Monday April 22, 2019
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Unexpected Deaths of Innocent Civilians: Fearful Villagers in Rakhine Fleeing From Their Homes

The deployment came in response to Myanmar’s building of a steel structure along the Naf River on its side of the border without informing Bangladesh authorities, The Irrawaddy said, citing diplomatic sources.

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Myanmar villagers take refuge in a monastery in Tin Htein Kan village in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, April 2, 2019. RFA

More and more villagers are fleeing their homes in western Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state, even though they live in areas with no active fighting between government troops and the rebel Arakan Army, amid growing fear that Myanmar soldiers will shoot them indiscriminately during clearance operations, they told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

The villagers — who are leaving communities in Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships that have not seen any hostilities — have pushed up the number of displaced residents by several thousand, according to a Rakhine state disaster management official.

“It is a life-threatening situation,” Pauk Sa, who fled with his family from Aukthakan village in Mrauk-U township, told RFA earlier this month. “They shoot anyone they can find. They also have arrested and taken away anyone they think is suspicious.”

Village elder Hla Tun Phyi from the same community said, “What we are afraid of is getting shot and killed. That’s why we are running for our lives to safety.”

Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA in late March that soldiers had apprehended individuals from villages near conflict areas whom they deemed suspicious and detained them for questioning because of an increased number of ambush attacks on its troops.

But many villagers said they are now running away or hiding whenever they see military troops.

Tun Tha Sein, a Rakhine state parliament representative from Mrauk-U township, said the villagers who flee when they see Myanmar soldiers make themselves look suspicious.

The fear among local residents increased after they heard the news about random shootings that left civilians dead and wounded in Aukthakan village on March 29 and in the town of Mrauk-U on March 15 and March 18.

One man and one women died and seven people were injured during the Aukthakan shooting, including Pauk Sa whose head and limb wounds were so serious that she was later rushed to a hospital in Yangon for treatment.

“We are frightened because they cause trouble for civilians,” said Soe Wai, a resident of Aukthakan village, speaking about Myanmar soldiers.

“We are both frightened and distrustful of them,” he said. “If they hadn’t done those things to our villages, we wouldn’t view them this way, [and] we might still trust them. Now we don’t trust them anymore because they bring all kinds of trouble to the villages.”

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But many villagers said they are now running away or hiding whenever they see military troops. Pixabay

‘Really scared of them’

Consequently, residents of Mrauk-U township’s Bu Ywat Mahnyo, Lakka, and Tain Nyo villages where there is no armed conflict are now also leaving their homes and taking refuge in nearby villages with available shelter.

“We local civilians are really scared of them,” said Hla Win Kyi who fled from Bu Ywat Mahnyo village and sought shelter in Tin Htein Kan village.

“They come, and they shoot randomly,” she said. “We are very scared and are running away from our homes. We can barely live a day at home. We cannot live in peace. Whenever they come, we run away.”

Many who have fled their homes said they later returned but left again because they were too scared to remain in their villages after Myanmar troops fired shots from heavy artillery.

“The military fired many gunshots at night,” said Thein Htun, who fled from Tain Nyo village and sought shelter in Tin Htein Kan village. “We were afraid that they might be coming into the village. We fled here because we fear them.”

The Myanmar military’s information committee and Win Zaw Oo of the Western Regional Command said their troops were shooting back following ambush attacks by the AA.

But AA officials have denied having any military confrontations in the villages where civilians have been shot.

The additional numbers of civilians fleeing their homes has increased the number of displaced villagers to more than 31,000, said Ye Min Oo from Rakhine state’s Department of Disaster Management.

Only 4,000 have returned home, leaving more than 27,000 still displaced as of April 6 and living in temporary shelters in Ponnakyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Rathedaung, and Buthidaung townships, he said.

The Rakhine state government estimated in an earlier report that more than 26,000 civilians had been displaced, while a Rakhine ethnic NGO put the number at nearly 28,700 as of April 2.

The government so far has provided about 400 million kyats’ (U.S. $263,900) worth of rice and clothing for the displaced villagers and will continue to do so, Ye Min Oo said.

‘Try to win people’s friendship’

Htun Hlaing, a Mrauk-U resident and former Rakhine state parliament lawmaker who is now helping displaced civilians, said the Myanmar Army should try to win the trust and friendship of local civilians.

“It is very sad to hear that civilians from villages without conflicts are also having trouble,” he said. “There shouldn’t have been any losses in villages where there were no conflicts.”

“The military shouldn’t make people despise it,” he added. “It should only try to win people’s friendship.”

Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA on March 29 that troops had conducted clearance operations in villages because AA soldiers were using them as cover.

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the Arakan force AA has never carried out attacks on the enemy in villages where civilians might be injured or killed.

When asked if the military would investigate claims that shootings by its troops had killed and injured civilians, Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the army will follow established procedures.

“We have procedures for every situation,” he said. “We will follow our procedures on investigations whether it is for this case, in losses among the civilian population, or for any other scenario.”

Zaw Htay, director general of President Win Myint’s office, said in an earlier report that 103 clashes between the AA and Myanmar forces resulted in nearly 20 civilian deaths and 20 civilians injured during the period Jan. 4 to March 28.

He said six of the civilians were killed by the AA, but did not specify who killed the others.

Delegates from Border Guards Bangladesh discuss border-related issues with officials from the Myanmar Police Force during a meeting in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw, April 8, 2019.
Delegates from Border Guards Bangladesh discuss border-related issues with officials from the Myanmar Police Force during a meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, April 8, 2019. RFA

Bangladesh wants end to random shootings

In a related development, the head of Bangladesh’s border guard service on Monday requested that the Myanmar government control random shooting along the border between the two countries to prevent civilians from being killed.

Major General Md Shafeenul Islam, director general of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), is leading an 11-member team in a five-day border conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw with a 17-member delegation led by Myanmar Police Brigadier General Myo Than, chief of the general staff of the country’s police force. The conference began on April 6.

BGB officials told their counterparts that some civilians had been killed by indiscriminate shooting from the Myanmar side near border areas, and that they wanted Myanmar officials to control it.

“I request that you stop this firing near the border,” Md Shafeenul Islam said. “Sometimes it leads to unexpected deaths of innocent civilians.”

Bangladesh currently houses more than 1.2 million Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, including about 740,000 who fled across the border during a military-led crackdown in northern Rakhine state that began in August 2017.

About 1,300 Rohingya are stuck in a no-man’s land along the border at Bangladesh’s Tambru border crossing.

In June 2018, Myanmar border guards shot and injured a 10-year-old Rohingya boy playing in the buffer zone near barbed-wire fencing erected by Myanmar. In November, they fired shots into Bangladesh territory at Ukhia sub-district in Cox’s Bazar, injuring two people, including a Rohingya youth.

Brigadier General Myo Than said that problems affecting bilateral ties, understanding, and trust had cropped up after deadly attacks by the Muslim militant group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Rakhine state in August 2017, which triggered the brutal crackdown.

“When we try to resolve and work on the problems between the two countries, it is important for both countries to have mutual understanding and respect, and to follow the agreements between the two countries,” he said.

“We want Bangladesh to work together with us to create an atmosphere with sustainable development, stability, peace, and equality for the Rakhine people and Rakhine state,” he said.

The BGB officials also said that the meeting would include discussions about the inflow of illegal narcotics, terrorism along the border, a cease-fire on the frontier, intrusions across the border, and joint patrols, according to a report by the online journal The Irrawaddy.

A press conference on the meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

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On Sunday, the Bangladeshi government sent more than 100 BGB personnel with heavy weapons to St. Martin’s Island off Cox’s Bazar district in the Bay of Bengal, to reinforce border protection and reduce drug trafficking, Agence France-Presse reported.

The deployment came in response to Myanmar’s building of a steel structure along the Naf River on its side of the border without informing Bangladesh authorities, The Irrawaddy said, citing diplomatic sources.

It also came amid Bangladesh’s fears of a further escalation of armed conflict in Rakhine state following a helicopter attack in Buthidaung township on April 3 that left a number of Rohingya dead and injured, the report said. (RFA)

Next Story

Archaeologists Demand Myanmar’s Army to Remove Heavy Guns From Ancient Rakhine Temple Complex

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

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Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015. RFA

Archaeologists want Myanmar forces to remove their artillery from a temple complex in a historically significant area of war-torn Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township, saying that artillery shells fired from inside the zone have damaged ancient monuments.

Residents have reported that national troops have fired artillery from the archaeological zone towards areas where they thought that members of the rebel Arakan Army (AA) are hiding since the two sides began fighting in the township more than a month ago, they said Friday.

Members of the Mrauk-U Archaeological Zone Protection Association sent a letter to Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu on April 9, objecting to the military’s shelling from the archeological zone.

The letter mentioned that government troops placed artillery launchers on Sat Yone Mountain, Nga Pi Thel Ma hills, Nate Bu Zar pagoda hills, Amyint Taung fortress, Shwe Taung hill, Yadanar Mann Aung pagoda hill and other mountains where the Ye Hla Nga-Mann walls are located, and fired shells almost every day.

The letter also asserted that some security forces stationed in the area dug up trenches and used the stones from ancient monuments as bunkers.

“They have placed the artillery in a row,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust. “Residents from nearby neighborhoods could see they had used stones from monuments to build bunkers. This is not something hidden from view. All are in plain sight. All the residents of Mrauk-U can see where they are placing the huge guns.”

Township archaeologists have concluded that there could be damage to the monuments in the eastern part of Mrauk-U as well, but they cannot visit the area for safety reasons, she added.

Brigadier Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s information team denied that government forces placed artillery launchers in the township’s archaeological zone.

“Where are they referring to?” he asked. “We never placed any launchers anywhere. We haven’t placed heavy artillery in any of the places [they] mentioned.”

Kyaw Aye Thein, Rakhine state’s planning and finance minister who oversees the Mrauk-U archaeological zone, said government officials have reported the issue to military commanders on the front line through Colonel Phone Tint, the regional minister for border affairs and security.

“We make all decisions as the Cabinet,” Kyaw Aye Thein said. “When we get the letter, we will make a decision and take action.”

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Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added. Pixabay

Cracks in ancient temple

Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Research Department, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Friday that archaeologists found that the shelling caused cracks in Ko Thaung Temple, the township’s largest temple whose name means “Shrine of the 90,000 Images of the Buddha,” a reference to the number of Buddha statues the massive 16th-century structure held.

“During field studies conducted by my staff, we found that there was some damage to ancient monuments due to vibrations in the surroundings of the Ko Thaung Temple,” he said.

Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added.

“We have received the preliminary findings from the engineering team,” he said. “We haven’t done any detailed studies yet.”

Khin Than said she has been working on a report on the cracks in the Ko Thaung Temple.

The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas.

But Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA that claims by archaeologists that shelling by Myanmar forces damaged the ancient monuments are illogical, and he dismissed them as a pretext.

“I would like to ask them why numerous ancient temples in [central Myanmar’s] Bagan still survive despite intense vibrations from two or three passenger planes landing daily in the area,” he said, adding that pressure and vibrations from shelling is not that great.

“They are using it as an excuse to blame us,” he said. “This is not a reasonable claim.”

‘All are in plain sight’

Archaeologists and residents say the clashes have become an obstacle to efforts to have the zone listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020.

Officials held a meeting on submitting the nomination for the Mrauk-U region to UNESCO on March 28, during which Khin Than said weapons fired by government troops in the archaeological zone produced vibrations of levels five to seven on the Richter scale, used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes.

Vibrations at those levels can damage ancient temples built some 500 years ago, she added.

Hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the township’s hills are remnants of a powerful ethnic Rakhine coastal kingdom that existed in Mrauk-U from the 15th century to the late 18th century.

The empire ruled over what is now Rakhine state and the Chittagong division of neighboring Bangladesh, before it was taken over by the Burmese following an invasion.

AA releases relatives

In a development related to the fighting in Mrauk-U, the AA on Friday released seven family members of police officers whom the ethnic military abducted earlier this week during a clash with Myanmar forces, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.

Arakan fighters attacked a police battalion headquarters and residential unit on late Tuesday and early Wednesday, sparking a backlash from government troops who conducted an aerial assault.

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

The family members of the policemen were released at a location near Mrauk-U Hospital, Khine Thukha said, insisting that the AA rescued rather than kidnapped them.

“We were not kidnapping them,” he told RFA. “When our troops were retreating, the Myanmar military was bombing the area with three fighter jets. … The women and children in the building were at risk, so we took them to a place of safety. Afterwards, we released them safely and in dignity.”

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The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas. Pixabay

But Major General Tun Tun Nyi from the military’s information team disagreed.

“They attacked the police battalion compound and killed some people,” he said. “They abducted the police’s family members as hostages, and now they are making up these stories as a pretext. They returned the victims because they feel bad about what they had done.”

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RFA as unable to contact the women and children for comment.

Fighting between Myanmar and Arakan forces intensified early this year after the AA carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in Rakhine in its quest for autonomy in Rakhine state. The assault prompted the Myanmar government to brand the AA a terrorist group and order its military to crush it. (RFA)