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Rakhine Villagers Flee to Temples when Military Unit Conducted Door-to-Door Searches for Rebel Ethnic Soldiers

The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound

Myanmar villagers who fled their communities when government soldiers conducted door-to-door searches for members of an ethnic armed group take shelter in Aung Mingalar Monastery in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, March 20, 2019. RFA

Thousands of fearful villagers have fled communities in Myanmar’s war-ravaged Rakhine state, where a Myanmar military unit has been conducting door-to-door searches for rebel ethnic soldiers, residents of the affected villages said Wednesday.

The searches for Arakan Army (AA) troops took place all day in Myo Chaung and Pan Myaung villages on the border between Mrauk-U and Minbya townships in the northern part of the state where hostilities between the two militaries have escalate since late last year, they said.

“Yesterday was really bad,” said Kyaw Myint, a resident of Pan Myaung village. “They [government soldiers] started from Myo Chaung village with their search [for AA fighters] and reached the edge of Pan Myaung village. The government soldiers changed to civilian clothing and entered the village firing their guns. All the villagers ran for their lives.”

The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery, while more than 2,000 sought safety inside the Shwe Phaung Tin Monastery compound, they said.

“An IDP [internally displaced persons] camp has been opened in Shwe Phaung Tin monastery compound, Kyaw Myint said. “It’s already harboring a large number of people.”

myanmar, rakhine village
“Yesterday was really bad,” said Kyaw Myint, a resident of Pan Myaung village. Wikimedia

When Myanmar soldiers entered villagers’ homes, they beat some, detained others, and stripped more then 130 of them of their shirts and made them stay outside in the burning sun, said Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha of Shwe Phaung Tin monastery. He said he does not know how long the monastery can host the IDPs.

“Then they asked where the AA soldiers were located,” he said. “Now the villagers are scared of the soldiers and have fled their homes.”

During the search, Myanmar soldiers took away four villagers — Khin Maung, 30, and Kyaw Aye Maung, 25 from Myo Chaung village and Soe Win Naing, 22, and Maung Myint Hlaing, age estimated to be about 30, from Ywa Thit ward — for supposedly having connections to the AA, residents and family members said.

“They took two villagers from Myo Chaung village and two from Ywa Thit ward,” Kyaw Myint said. “We haven’t heard anything from them since.”

Kyaw Kyaw Hla from Aung Mingalar Monastery said the government troops fired indiscriminately at the villagers.

“The soldiers entered the villages and did whatever they wanted,” he said. They fired their guns at random and apprehended the villagers for questioning. They caused so much panic.”

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The search operation along with some shooting incidents by government soldiers caused more than 500 local residents to take sanctuary on the grounds of Aung Mingalar Monastery. Wikimedia

The Myanmar Army views Rakhine villagers as AA sympathizers, Kyaw Kyaw Hla said.

“So, they brutally questioned the villagers if they found them in the village,” he said. “They got angrier if they were not in the village. They said they would torch the houses if nobody was found in the village.”

The AA, a Buddhist Rakhine military fighting for autonomy in the state, was branded a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government after it carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in the state early this year, leaving 13 dead. A similar assault on another police outpost in early March killed nine officers and wounded two others.

RFA’s Myanmar Service was unable to reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo, commander of the Western Regional Military Command to confirm the arrests.

RFA was also unable to contact AA spokesman Khine Thukha to confirm if AA members were hiding in villages on the border between Minbya and Mrauk-U townships.

Meanwhile, the influx of residents of Pan Myaung and Myo Chaung villages who have left their homes has stretched the two monasteries housing them to their limits.

Abbot Pyinnyar Wontha said he does not know how long the Shwe Phaung Tin monastery can host the IDPs.

“We requested that they go back home in one or two days, but their numbers have swelled to over 2,000 since yesterday,” he said.

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Villagers look at an unexploded rocket from fighting between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, March 16, 2019. Credit: AFP. RFA

Mrauk-U villagers still missing

One month has passed since the families of six people in Mrauk-U township were detained by the Myanmar military during clashes with the AA, and haven’t been heard from since.

Maung Win Sein, 35; Aye Thein, 33; Maung Shwe Soe, 29, from Thar-Zi village; Sein Thar Kyaw, 46, from Taung Oo village; and Hla Htun Chae, 61, from Yan-Aung-Myae village — disappeared on Feb. 19 during an intense battle in the township’s Yan Chaung region.

Myo Min Zaw, 19, from Kya-Nat-Kan village in Kyauktaw township, north of Mrauk-U, also went missing the same day. Tun Nu, the head of the township’s Taung Min Kular village also went missing during the skirmishes.

Their family members, who insist that the men have no ties to the AA, said they filed missing person reports at a local police stations but have heard nothing since.

RFA was unable to reach the police stations in Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw townships.

Oo Myint Htay, wife of Maung Win Sein, said a stranger with a mixed Myanmar-Rakhine accent answered her husband’s cell phone when she called his number.

“He told me not to call him if it’s nothing urgent,” she said. “With all the fighting going on, I was very worried because it was not my husband answering the phone and a stranger was answering it. I called the second time but no one answered. Since then, the phone has been turned off so it can’t receive calls anymore.”

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Their family members, who insist that the men have no ties to the AA, said they filed missing person reports at a local police stations but have heard nothing since. RFA

Dar Sein, wife of Hla Htun Chae from Yan Aung Pyin village, said her husband was arrested by the Myanmar military’s 22nd Division.

When she went to the army compound to inquire about her husband after he didn’t come home from cattle herding, she found him being tied up, she said.

“They tied my husband up,” she said. “When I got there, my husband Hla Htun Chae asked me to redo his sarong.”

After a while, he was summoned by the captain, and soldiers asked Dar Sein to go home.

“I said I’d go home with my husband because he has hypertension and is not in good health,” she said.

“The soldiers told me not to worry and asked me to leave,” she said. “I left and haven’t heard from my husband since then.”

‘They had done it’

Hla Htun Chae is the only one of the missing men confirmed to be detained by the military, while the fate of the remaining villagers remains unknown.

Some believe the missing men may be among three charred bodies discovered in a valley east of Yan Aung Pyin village on Feb. 21.

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“The soldiers told me not to worry and asked me to leave,” she said. “I left and haven’t heard from my husband since then.” Wikimedia

“I went there to investigate with the village head and elders of Kyar Nat Kan, but we saw only the piles of ashes,” said Sein Hla Maung, head of Yan Aung Pyin village. “It was where military troops had been stationed, so we concluded that they had done it.”

RFA could not independently confirm that the charred bodies found near Yan Aung Pyin village were the work of the government troops.

A spokesman for Myanmar military’s information committee told RFA on Feb. 25 that soldiers apprehended the local residents only as part of investigations and that they have not forcibly detailed any civilians. The AA also denied detaining them.

Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker who represents Mrauk-U township in the Rakhine state parliament, said state officials should inform the families about their missing relatives.

“The state government is responsible for protecting its local citizens,” he said. “The government needs to give explanation to the family members of those who have been missing for a month.”

AA joins talks

The AA is one of a handful of ethnic armies fighting the government military in some of Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas.

The Myanmar government’s peace commission has invited eight organizations that have not signed a nationwide cease-fire — including the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan — to attend collective peace discussions for the first time on Thursday.

Some delegates from the various groups and a Chinese representative arrived in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday.

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Colonel Kyaw Han leads AA delegation.

After holding talks with government peace negotiators, representatives from each ethnic armed group will meet individually with representatives from the Myanmar military on Friday.

The talks are an effort to jump-start the country’s stalled peace process to end decades of armed conflict in Myanmar. (RFA)

Next Story

More And More Women Join The Arakan Army’s Fight Against Myanmar’s Central Government

“Only after we pass that step will we be able to achieve the goal of a federal union that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups,” she said

Female Arakan Army recruits train with their male counterparts in northern Myanmar's Kachin state in an undated photo. RFA

The Arakan Army, which is battling the Myanmar military for autonomy in turbulent Rakhine state, has grown in both force strength and firepower since its formation in 2009 to the level that the rebel group can now launch successful offensives on police or military outposts. And its message is drawing as many young female recruits as men.

After hundreds of Arakan fighters carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine in early January, striking on Myanmar’s Independence Day, hostilities between the two sides escalated, prompting the government to brand the Arakan Army, commonly referred to as the AA, a terrorist group and to order its troops to eliminate it.

So far this year, the AA and Myanmar forces have engaged in more than 100 battles in Rakhine state.

The AA, which draws most of its recruits from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who support its mission, has trained with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another ethnic armed group that has fought government forces in Kachin and northern Shan states, at KIA headquarters in the remote mountainous town of Laiza, with AA soldiers playing a supporting role in those regions.

The AA engaged in its first real clash with Myanmar Army troops in March 2015 near Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township. It was one of three ethnic armies excluded from the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which eight ethnic organizations signed, later that year.

Ethnic armies are known to exaggerate their member numbers, and AA leaders have refused to divulge the exact number of soldiers in its ranks. A January report on women in ethnic armies by the Norway-based Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), however, put the total number of both male and female AA troops at 1,000, while another report published the same month by the online journal The Irrawaddy put it at 7,000.

Like the national military and other ethnic armies in Myanmar, the AA is focusing its recruitment efforts on signing up young women to fortify its ranks and prepare them for future combat to fulfill the AA’s mission of self-determination for ethnic Rakhine people in Rakhine state.

There are now as many young women as there are male recruits training at a military facility in Laiza in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state near the border with China, signaling growing support for the rebel army among Rakhine civilians as the conflict intensifies.

Most of the young women training there are about 20 years old. RFA’s Myanmar Service has given them aliases because they declined to be identified by name while speaking on the record during a recent reporting trip to Kachin state, citing security and other reasons.

‘We want self-governance’

The female soldiers say they have been motivated to join the AA by the rebel force’s credo that armed revolution is the only way to achieve ethnic Rakhines’ goals of self-governance, self-determination, and equality in their state.

“In the battles, they will not be spared because they are female,” he said. “They will be treated as enemies.” Pixabay

“We want self-governance,” said female recruit Hla Hla Kwye. “We can address our problems and decide what we need only when we have self-governance and self-determination. Now, it is all messed up since we are governed by others. We are discriminated against as if we are parented by a stepfather or a stepmother.”

She said she wants to deliver the “gift of independence” to her fellow ethnic Rakhines before 2020, so that they will no longer be “oppressed.”

“They will no longer be a second-class ethnic group,” Hla Hla Kwye said.

Others said they decided to join the AA to fight the ethnic-based discrimination and unfairness they face from the ethnic Bamar majority that dominates the national military and the country’s ruling, civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

Myo Myo Thet, a female recruit who has been stationed at AA headquarters since 2018, said this unfairness has been evident in the extraction of natural resources in Rakhine state.

“When we interacted with the environment, we came to realize that we only got unfair shares of profits from natural resources extracted from our own state,” she said. “So, I learned that an armed revolution is unavoidable in order to achieve a Rakhine Nation. I then pledged to become a female Rakhine soldier.”

Many ethnic Rakhines believe they have been sold short on benefits they should have received as part of the central government’s natural resources and infrastructure deals with Myanmar’s larger neighbors China and India — namely, dual pipelines that export their state’s oil and natural gas to China and a massive transportation corridor to ship cargo from India to Rakhine’s Sittwe seaport and then on to northeast India via river and highway routes.

Other female recruits said they have been motivated to join the AA by more practical reasons, namely lack of employment opportunities — especially for women — in the impoverished and underdeveloped state.

“Before, I liked to make myself look beautiful,” said recruit Soe Soe. “I liked to eat a lot and sleep a lot. I didn’t have any employment either. We had to go to Yangon to get a job. There are no job opportunities in Rakhine state. We only have chores like cooking and carrying water.”

After she joined the AA, Moe Moe found a job and learned how to make better use of her free time.

“I’ve learned how to spend time wisely — how to spend leisure time wisely,” she said. “I’ve been able to read books. Only here, I’ve learned that I should read books.”

Training female soldiers takes two months, during which time they are also required to learn skills such as office administration, management, accounting, and sewing.

Though she’s proud of her work with the AA, Soe Soe said she is ready to return home to be with her family.

“I want to go home,” she said. “But although I’m separated from my whole family, I’m proud that I’m now working for the sake of the entire Rakhine state.”

Female Arakan Army recruits exercise as part of their training regimen in northern Myanmar's Kachin state in an undated photo.
Female Arakan Army recruits exercise as part of their training regimen in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state in an undated photo. RFA

Political negotiations

Some political analysts in Myanmar questioned why female soldiers want to get involved in armed conflict.

Retired military officer Aung Myo said Rakhine state’s problems do not stem from inequality between the Bamar majority and ethnic minorities or from racism, but have been created by the centralized administrative system practiced by successive governments.

“The ethnic minorities think they are being discriminated against, [and] they feel that they are victims of racial supremacy,” he said.

“I don’t want to judge whether their narrative is right or wrong because it is so broad,” he said. “But what we can’t disagree on is that the problems stem from the resistance to decentralization and suppression of the ethnic states’ autonomy, which have not changed up to today.”

Author Mi Sue Pwint, a member of the Women’s League of Burma, a community-based organization promoting women’s rights and participation in Myanmar politics and its peace process, said that although female soldiers are receiving necessary combat training, they may not be getting training in negotiation skills that members of armed groups need to participate in political discussions.

“They are all using the women to showcase their strength, but the real question here is how well the women are prepared and trained for political engagement,” she said, adding that the success of a democratic society, such as the one Myanmar is striving to build, will be judged in part by the extent of women’s political power.

Myanmar’s peace process, in which the national military and ethnic armed organizations are key stakeholders, is a fundamental part of the country’s transition to democracy that began in 2011. Both sides must be able to engage constructively in talks to address political problems that are the root causes of the country’s warfare in an effort to end decades of armed conflict and forge peace and stability.

“Political negotiations are the next step we need to go through,” said Mi Su Pwint, a former soldier with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an opposition group founded in 1988 after a series of nationwide popular pro-democracy protests and civil unrest.

“Only after we pass that step will we be able to achieve the goal of a federal union that guarantees equality among all ethnic groups,” she said.

Those involved in the peace process have an agreed-on target that women should ac