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Rakhine: Ban on Donations to Help War Refugees

“People are moving around, and they can encounter difficulties and problems anytime, anywhere, because of the weather and the fighting,” he said. “People should have the right to help IDPs in their own way.”

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Myanmar
Myanmar villagers displaced by armed conflict take temporary shelter in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, in an undated photo. RFA

Myanmar’s Rakhine state government has banned state employees from collecting donations to help thousands of residents displaced by hostilities between national forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), fearing that the funds are being diverted to the ethnic fighters, according to an internal memo issued by the state’s education department.

The memo dated April 5 instructed education department employees to refrain from gathering donations  for internally displaced person (IDPs), citing concerns that some of the money is being passed on to the AA to assist the ethnic army in its battle for greater autonomy in Rakhine.

When contacted by RFA’s Myanmar Service, state education official Aung Than Myint confirmed the news and said he released the departmental circular per the state government’s instructions.

Police in Rakhine have also been stopping local NGOs from collecting money in some areas of the state, much to the indignation of local residents who want to provide aid to some of the estimated 31,000 people who have fled their homes due to armed conflict.

In a statement issued on April 6, the Representative Committee of Civil Society Organizations in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe condemned the actions of police officers who stopped a civil society group from collecting donations there.

“Because they are afraid the money will go to the AA, people who really are suffering will not get any support or donations from CSOs,” Thar Pwint, chairman of the Representative Committee of Civil Society Organizations in Sittwe.

“It’s not good,” he said. “They [the authorities] should use some other way to stop money from going to the AA.”

Letters of instruction

On the same day that Thar Pwint’s group issued its statement, Sittwe’s Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity sent letters to township police and village administrators, ordering them not to collect any donations without permission from the state government.

The letters instructed police authorities and village officials to take action against those who collect funds for the IDPs without permission.

When RFA contacted several village heads, they hesitated confirm that they had received the letters.

“We have heard that some people were collecting donations in some government departments to support the AA,” said a state government official who declined to give his name.

“The state government is just trying to contain the situation because of this rumor,” he said.

A man helping the IDPs, who asked that his name be withheld, said the influx of villagers who have fled their communities and have sought shelter in other villages has created food and water shortages.

“Some villages have only 100 households, but about 300 households have come to their villages [for shelter], and they have to share food for the 100 households with another 300 households,” he said. “This will be a problem in the long run. The host households have to take care of the IDPs who can’t work.”

Khine Maung Gyi of Sittwe township’s Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity, said that authorities believe money collected is going to the AA, they should come up with a more specific plan to stop it from happening.

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In a related development, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said Thursday that the ethnic military would release the family members of police officers it had detained a day earlier following a clash in Mrauk-U township. Pixabay

“As the situation is bad enough with the IDP problem in Rakhine, it will get worse with other problems arising because of what they have now done,” he said.

“People are moving around, and they can encounter difficulties and problems anytime, anywhere, because of the weather and the fighting,” he said. “People should have the right to help IDPs in their own way.”

Supplies for IDPs

Ye Min Oo from Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department noted that the state government has supplied IDPs with rice and other humanitarian aid now worth 500 million kyats (U.S. $329,300).

On Thursday, members of the Rakhine State Peace and Stability Supporting Committee visited Kyauktaw township, one of the areas affected by the fighting, where panel chairman Aye Thar Aung and vice chairman Pe Myint provided goods to IDPs.

The committee, formed by President Win Myint in March to prevent provocations that could cause further instability in the violence-ridden state, this week began conducting field studies on peace and stability in Rakhine, consulting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions on short-term and long-term projects to bring stability to the state.

In addition to the thousands of displaced people in Rakhine, the fighting has resulted in 43 deaths and 69 injuries among civilians, according to a list issued by the state’s Disaster Management Department,

In a related development, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said Thursday that the ethnic military would release the family members of police officers it had detained a day earlier following a clash in Mrauk-U township.

About 200 AA soldiers attacked the compound, taking four women and three children from the residential quarters with them when they later retreated, with the wife of one police official shot dead by ethnic forces, a report in the official Global New Light of Myanmar said.

Two policemen were killed and seven others were reported missing during the fighting, the report said.

Tun Myat Naing said in the online journal The Irrawaddy that the AA did not abduct the people, but rather led them to safety, fearing they might be killed as Myanmar military planes bombed the area.

The Myanmar Police Force said the AA abducted seven people and that the wife of one officer was killed during the attack.

The AA will hand the women and children over either to the government or to a local ethnic Rakhine women’s group, Myat Naing told the journal.

The AA and Myanmar Army reported casualties on both sides.

Villagers detained

Following a deadly attack on the police compound, government soldiers and the AA took their battle to a village north of Mrauk-U township where Myanmar troops later detained nearly 30 residents, villagers said.

Fighting ensued in Lekkar village after the AA attacked the No.31 Police Division before dawn earlier in the morning. Both sides confirmed the fighting but did not provide details.

Myanmar villagers told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Thursday that a military column had entered the village and apprehended 27 locals the troops believed to be connected to the AA, but that they had no ties to the ethnic army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state.

“Nineteen people from our village [were taken],” said Thein Yee, whose husband Khin Maung Saw is among those being detained.”

The other eight are from different villages.

“Some people such as carpenters who were here to build houses were also in the village,” she told RFA.

“A tenth-grader was also taken. They have nothing to do with the AA. We can surely guarantee that. All of our village elders can guarantee that. They have nothing to do with the AA. We have to make a living working odd jobs.”

Thein Yee also said that Khin Maung Saw had been with her throughout the clash when they took refuge in a village monastery.

Lone Lone, the aunt of detained tenth-grader Soe Moe Kyaw, said that the boy from Pyine-cha village had come to Lekkar village to attend school.

“He went to Pyine-cha for a brief visit, and then came back here with me,” she said. “We were hiding in bomb shelters when soldiers came to the village.”

The soldiers called for Soe Moe Kyaw to come out and ordered him to take off his shirt, she said.

“He was left under the burning sun, and we were too scared to say anything,” Lone Lone said. “We dared not even look at them. My nephew didn’t understand the situation, because he is just a tenth-grader.”

35 names on a list

Villagers and AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the people that the military had taken away were not AA members.

But Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information team insisted that they have ties to the Arakan force.

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Police in Rakhine have also been stopping local NGOs from collecting money in some areas of the state, much to the indignation of local residents who want to provide aid to some of the estimated 31,000 people who have fled their homes due to armed conflict. Pixabay

“They are members of the AA, according to our investigation,” he said. “We’ll release information later.”

A statement issued Wednesday by the Myanmar military said it had apprehended 23 members of the AA disguised as local residents who had escaped into the village.

When RFA asked Zaw Min Tun about the difference in the figures, he said the number varied based on the situation on the ground.

The military column raided the community and found a handwritten list of people whom it questioned, later taking away some of those whose names appeared on it, villagers said.

They insisted that the list did not belong to the AA, and instead contained the names of members of local welfare groups.

A local government employee speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA that the list contained names of members of a sentry group set up to protect the village during the fighting and prevent thieves from stealing cattle.

“We have about four or five groups to protect the village in south, north, east, and west locations,” he said. “The group in question was from the west.”

“The names of 35 people were on the list,” he said. “Some are at IDP camps, and some are in the village. The troops called out these people and accused them of having contact with AA. They said it openly in front of us.”

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Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the army is conducting necessary investigations.

“The truth will come out later,” he said. “That’s all I can say for now. I think the police will release their findings on the investigation later.” (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)