Fresh skirmishes between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in violence-scarred northern Rakhine state have left two youths injured and forced about 200 villagers to flee their homes in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships, local residents said Wednesday.
The two boys, ages 10 and 18, were injured and one house was destroyed when a stray mortar shell exploded in Maungdaw’s Yan Aung Myin village on Wednesday, though it is unclear whether the Myanmar Army or the AA fired the shell, said village head Thein Naing Win.
The two were taken to Maungdaw Hospital for treatment, he added.
About 200 residents of Ooyinthar village fled to Sango Taung village amid fighting on Tuesday, villagers said, bringing the total number of displaced civilians in the region to roughly 6,000 estimated by local relief groups since armed conflict between AA and Myanmar troops ratcheted up in late November 2018.
“The fighting started at around 6 p.m. yesterday and lasted for about 30 minutes,” said an Ooyinthar resident who declined to be named. “All villagers fled from the village. If the fighting stops today, we will return home tomorrow.”
The Myanmar Army and local residents said the new battles left casualties on both sides, but no details were given. The AA said it participated in four new skirmishes but would not confirm whether it suffered any casualties.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo from the government military’s Western Military Command, which oversees operations in Rakhine state, blamed the latest rounds of fire on the AA.
“The AA started the fighting near the villages,” he told RFA's Myanmar Service. “They could have done so far from the villages, but they intentionally started them nearer so that villagers would flee from the fighting. Then the AA, along with the media, could portray the situation in the region as unstable.”
AA soldiers then attacked government troops near the border, and retreated into neighboring Bangladesh, he said.
“We didn’t attack them when they reached the other side because we don’t want to harm the relationship between the two countries,” Win Zaw Oo said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied accusations by the government army that the Arakan force has based some of its soldiers in Bangladesh.
“Actually, we are not there,” he said. “We deploy our troops along the border as we are fighting for Rakhine.”
The government army said it will continue clearance operations against the AA in the region, while the Arakan fighters said they expect more hostilities with national forces.
Clashes intensified after Jan. 4 when the AA, which is fighting for greater autonomy in the state, attacked four police outposts in the region, killing 13 policemen and wounding nine others.
Village chiefs threaten walkout
Meanwhile, about 30 village chiefs met and talked with the administrator of adjacent Rathedaung township about the arrests of some of their peers for allegedly having links to the AA, and threatened to quit if they do not receive a response from authorities by the end of January.
On Tuesday, they submitted resignations to the local General Services Department out of fear that they too might be accused of links to the AA, Frontier Myanmar magazine reported, in a move that could impair the local government.
One village head who declined to be named out of fear for his safety told RFA that Rathedaung’s administrator said he would inform higher-up administrators about their complaints.
Those arrested so far include a village head from Buthidaung’s Pyin Chaung village and one from Yekaung Chaung village. Both have been charged under Myanmar’s Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly having links to the AA, considered to be an outlawed armed ethnic organization.
Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of using the act to intimidate and arrest ethnic minorities, especially those in turbulent regions where government troops are engaged in hostilities with ethnic armies.
Amid the uptick in fighting between the AA and Myanmar military in Rakhine state, government military authorities have restricted displaced civilians' access to food supplies in an effort to keep food from reaching AA troops.
Government forces began restricting food supplies in the state’s Kyauktaw township on Dec. 28 following clashes with the AA, one displaced resident told RFA in an earlier report.
On Wednesday, the Sub-Committee for Judiciary Fairness of Rakhine state’s Rule of Law Department called the blocking of aid to displaced persons in Kyauktaw a violation of international law.
Sub-committee leader Thar San told reporters during a public talk at the Rakhine state Attorney General’s Office that everyone has a right to receive aid and that it is disappointing to see the Myanmar military preventing it from reaching displaced villagers.
The group will submit a demand to the Union Attorney General’s office in Naypyidaw if Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu can’t end the blockade, he said.
The coordination body for the Rule of Law Department and Sub-Committee for Judiciary Fairness is led by Union attorney General Tun Tun Oo.
RFA was unable to reach Nyi Pu or Rakhine state Border Affairs Minister Colonel Phone Tint for comment.
More than 2,000 IDPs from Kyauktaw's Wadaung, Kan Saut, and Taung Min Kalar villages face food shortages because of the aid block by the military.
Township schools close
The ongoing clashes also have closed 31 schools in Rakhine state just before students are scheduled to take final exams.
“Sixteen schools in Buthidaung have been closed since Jan. 7 because of the fighting,” Sein Hla Tun, deputy director of Rakhine state’s Education Department, told RFA.
“It’s very difficult to travel to school,” he said. “These schools will be reopened once the situation returns to normal. The students cannot go to other villages for schooling, either, as the region is now a flashpoint.”
Besides the schools in Buthidaung, other closures include a dozen schools in Kyauktaw, two in Ponnagyun township, and one in Rathedaung — all of which have more than 1,000 students, he said.
Officials have requested that children staying in relief camps for displaced people in Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun townships go to nearby schools to take their exams, Sein Hla Tun said.
“They are being provided with school uniforms and materials and are being taught during extra hours,” he said. “The children will not be disadvantaged as we are fulfilling their needs as much as we can.”
Myanmar schools will hold exams for all schoolchildren except those in 10th grade beginning the first week of February, he said.
Officials are now discussing exam options and special arrangements for those who have no access to schools in Buthidaung township, Sein Hla Tun said.
“Since the exams will begin after the end of this month, we hope to find a solution after Jan. 20,” he said. “They will have to take exams at the same time because the exam period cannot be held twice, but they will be treated as leniently as possible.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translation by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.