Myanmar government troops opened 2019 with exchanges of gunfire with an ethnic armed organization in Rakhine state’s Buthidaung township, while police accused the same rebel group of attacking a convoy transporting the region's chief minister.
The Myanmar Army engaged in clashes with the Arakan Army (AA) all day Tuesday in northern Rakhine’s Buthidaung, with local residents reporting that blasts from heavy weapons hit areas inhabited by civilians.
“Fighting occurred between Setaung and Kan Pyin villages in Buthidaung and in Thalu Chaung village in Kyauktaw township,” said Tun Aung Thein, a Rakhine state legislator from the Arakan National Party (ANP), who represents the Buthidaung township constituency.
A policeman was critically injured when border guard police were attacked by about 30 men with small and heavy arms on Tuesday near Setaung, the official Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.
More than 200 people from Setaung and Kanpyin villages have fled to Buthidaung’s Hsin Khon Taung, Sedi Taung, and Sapahtar villages, local sources said.
People from the three villages are helping the displaced civilians because government organizations do not have plans to provide assistance, Tun Aung Thein said.
“We can’t go to the places right now because the fighting is still going on, but lawmakers and members of the ANP will go to help these people once the situation becomes calm,” he said.
Wataung village in Kyauktaw township now houses more than 900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled their homes after government troops prevented food supplies from entering their areas.
RFA could not reach Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Western Regional Military Command to comment on the New Year’s Day fighting.
‘Violation of international rules’
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Arakan soldiers engaged in hostilities in both Buthidaung and Kyauktaw townships after government troops attacked villages with heavy weapons on Tuesday.
The two sides also engaged in serious hostilities on Wednesday in Buithidaung’s Nwayon Taung village, though there was no news of any casualties or injuries, he said.
Khine Thukha also said that the actions of the Myanmar Army toward civilians violated international treaties.
“When the government army’s troops enter local villages, they turn buildings such as monasteries and schools into encampments,” he said.
“We can say it is like they are using humans as shields, and this is a violation of international rules,” he said, adding that the Myanmar Army’s actions are a violation of the Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties that establish standards of international law for humanitarian treatment of civilians and prisoners of war during conflict.
The military has also brought police and security guards into the conflict zone and asked them to cut off food supplies from flowing into areas where fighting is underway, Khine Thukha said.
“This means that the military is employing the ‘four cuts’ strategy to complicate the situation,” he added, referring to a counter-insurgency strategy to cut off food, funds, intelligence, and popular support of rebel groups, which government forces have used against other ethnic armies in conflict areas around Myanmar.
Khine Thukha also said that the AA believes that a recent announcement by the military that it will transfer the General Administration Department (GAD) under the armed forces-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs to the civilian-led government is related to ongoing attacks in Rakhine state.
The GAD acts as the civil service for Myanmar’s 14 state and regional governments and provides the administration for their districts and townships.
Some Myanmar lawmakers believe the transfer will advance administrative reform in the ethnically diverse country by reducing the GAD’s centralized control of government bureaucracy in keeping with a pledge by Win Myint earlier this year to reinvent the government and prepare Myanmar for a federal system.
Mine attack targets convoy
Local police meanwhile have accused AA troops of attacking a convoy transporting Rakhine Chief Minister Nyi Pu in northern Rakhine state on Tuesday, though the insurgent group denies the claim.
Three mines were remotely detonated in northern Rakhine state Tuesday evening as a vehicle with the chief minister inside drove by.
A report by the Myanmar News Agency said no one was injured in the explosion, but the windshield of one car and the side glass of another vehicle had been shattered.
The convoy was traveling from Kyaukphyu township to the state capital Sittwe when the attack occurred near a village on the outskirts of Mrauk-U township.
“It’s difficult to say who carried out this attack on the chief minister’s convoy, because it occurred on a public road,” said Police Colonel Tin Min Oo of the Mrauk-U district police force.
“But it’s certain that an armed insurgent group did it because civilians don’t have any explosive devices and weapons,” he said, adding that no one had been injured in the blasts.
The blasts were the second attempted attack on Nyi Pu.
In December 2017, three roadside mines exploded as a Myanmar Army convoy passed thorough Rakhine’s Myebon township, injuring four soldiers, about an hour after the chief minister and government officials traveled through the same area.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the ethnic army did not carry out the attack.
“Only the authorities and security organizations knew about the chief minister’s trip; that’s why we assume that an organization related to the [government] military did it,” he told RFA.
“The military wants more fighting fronts in Rakhine,” he said. “Its fighting is targeting the democratic government with the intention of complicating politics.”
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has made ending seven decades of civil war in Myanmar a key policy goal of the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government. While 10 ethnic armies have signed a nationwide cease-fire accord, nearly a dozen others, including the AA, have not.
On Dec. 21, the Myanmar military agreed to a four-month unilateral cease-fire in war-torn Kachin and Shan states in a bid to reignite the stalled peace process by enticing separatist ethnic armies to join talks with the central government.
But the cease-fire, in effect until April 30, excludes the western state of Rakhine, where an army crackdown in 2017 forced more than 725,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh and where the military has been engaged in fighting the Rakhine Buddhist AA.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.