Civilians in Myanmar’s Conflict-Torn Rakhine State Left to Fend for Themselves

By Nyein Nyein 11 October 2019

SITTWE, Rakhine State—Ma Aye Myint, 24, has a bullet wound on her right arm from when Myanmar military troops were shooting near Mahamuni Village in Rakhine State’s Kyauktaw Township on July 31. When reporters from The Irrawaddy met her, she was sitting outside the rented guesthouse room where she lives. A baby, almost two months old, was lying next to her. In the Rakhine language, she told what happened to her.

Ma Aye Myint was hit when Myanmar military troops shot at a motorbike driver who refused to stop after the soldiers ordered him to, according to her husband Ko Zaw Zaw.

The couple’s home sits next to the Yangon-Sittwe highway, diagonally opposite from the village’s Mahamuni Pagoda, where Myanmar military troops were stationed until recently.

The soldiers shot the motorbike driver out on the highway and people in the surrounding houses hid when they heard the sound of gunfire.

All of Ma Aye Myint’s family members ran to hide inside the trench under the barn, or lay down, but she was pregnant and couldn’t hide as quickly. After she was hit, she was taken to Sittwe Hospital where she was treated for 21 days.

On Aug. 16, while still in the hospital, Ma Aye Myint gave birth to a girl, but because of her injuries, she still can’t hold her daughter. Someone else has to help her breastfeed, bathe the baby and change the baby’s clothes.

When The Irrawaddy asked the Myanmar military’s Western Command spokesperson Colonel Win Zaw Oo about the incident, he said at the time that there was no fighting near Mahamuni.

When Ma Aye Myint traveled the 110 km from Sittwe back home to Kyauktaw later in August, the fighting was still going on. It threatened her and her daughter’s safety. She no longer dared not to live in her house, with its bamboo matting for walls, so her family now rents a room at a local guesthouse. The walls there are cement.

Ko Zaw Zaw knows it still isn’t safe for them there. He hopes that the cement walls will protect them from bullets but he doubts they’ll be enough to stop mortar fire.

“It is better if there is no war. Now I cannot do farming as there is fighting everywhere and also [Ma Aye Myint] needs help, so I take care of my wife and daughter,” said Ko Zaw Zaw, adding that the room costs the family 60,000 kyats (US$39.35) per month.

In late September, Rakhine State parliamentarians called for armed groups to stop using religious and ancient buildings to take cover and called for the government to form an inquiry into civilian fatalities due to the shrapnel, bullet wounds and landmines.

Local residents told The Irrawaddy that Myanmar military troops have now retreated from the Mahamuni Pagoda, across the street from the couple’s home.

But the inquiry committee—which parliamentarians hoped would include government officials, lawmakers and civil society representatives—has yet to be formed, according to U Tun Thar Sein, an Arakan National Party parliamentarian from Mrauk U’s first constituency.

But Ma Aye Myint and her family still fear that a similar accident could happen again. Their story gives fuel to the fears of local residents in Rakhine State’s conflict areas that they could become victims: either as suspected members of ethnic armed groups or as civilians sandwiched in the crossfire between the military and the Arakan Army (AA).

As she lives next to the Yangon-Sittwe highway, Ma Aye Myint’s case is highly visible. But no one from the military or the government has taken responsibility for her case—to ensure she has long-term physical and mental health care or to offer financial support.

Internally displaced people from eight villages in Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township take shelter at the nearby Sin Baw Kaing Village IDP camp in September 2019. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

More than 60,000 local residents have been affected by the fighting between the AA and the military in northern Rakhine State, according to statistics supplied by the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a local relief group, on Sept. 16. State parliamentarian U Tun Thar Sein said 82 civilians have been killed and 126 have been injured since January. Dozens of civilians are also being detained for suspected affiliation with the AA.

The AA aims to achieve what it calls the “Arakan Dream”: to achieve self-determination for ethnic Rakhine people by 2020. It has clashed with the military since early 2015, when it began trying to establish bases in Rakhine State. The civilian displacement and fatalities began in January after the AA’s coordinated attack on four Border Guard Police outposts. AA deputy chief Nyo Tun Aung said in late August that the group’s fighters neither “do anything to harm” nor kill “their own people.”

But civilians have to bear the impacts of the AA’s actions.

Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) and local residents are now dependent on their neighbors’ help and relief efforts. They are left to take care of their own safety, and they pray to be spared from the fighting.

Burned trucks abandoned next to the Yangon-Sittwe Highway near Yoe Ta Yoke Village in Ponnagyun Township, Rakhine State, in September 2019. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Northern Rakhine State, except for Sittwe, is under curfew and four townships—Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya—have been under an internet blackout since June. It’s increasingly difficult to know what’s happening and to access villages in the area. The government originally ordered telecom companies to shut down internet access in eight townships in northern Rakhine State as well Paletwa in Chin State, but on Sept. 1, access was restored for five townships—Rathaetaung, Buthitaung, Maungdaw, Myebon and Paletwa.

Reporters from The Irrawaddy saw that law enforcement is largely absent in northern Rakhine and local residents live in fear of being targeted by both the military and the AA.

Three burned-out trucks sat along the highway in Yoe Ta Yoke Village in Ponnagyun Township, just an hour’s drive from Sittwe. When their trucks were destroyed, the locals explained that the owners never filed a claim because they are afraid the AA troops will then target them and accuse them of helping the military to transport goods.

The AA has conducted continuous attacks targeting police outposts, accusing them of aiding the military. Because of the intense fighting between the AA and the military, the state government has also struggled to operate. Rakhine State Minister of Municipal Affairs U Win Myint told the state parliament on Sept. 5 that State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu and most of his administrative officials are avoiding travel into the northern part of the state, in part because police escorts are not available.

Police in uniform have rarely been seen in towns outside of the capital or along the roads in northern Rakhine. The police in these areas no longer go out in uniform, for fear of being targeted.

Like Ma Aye Myint from Kyauktaw, locals in Rakhine’s northern townships continue to bear the burdens of the conflict.

Pan Myaung Village, in Minbya Township, sits about 50 km from Mahamuni Village. The drive from one to the other takes about an hour and a half. On Aug. 24, three children in Pan Myaung died and four adults were injured when their homes were hit by shelling from the military.

Pan Myaung is on the bank of the Lay Myoe River, near the border of Minbya and Mrauk-U townships.

Ma Phyu Hnin Soe shows the scar on her right arm from a wound she suffered when artillery shells hit her home on Aug. 24, 2019 in Pan Myaung Village, Minbya Township, Rakhine State. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

On Aug. 24, the military launched artillery attacks from the hill behind the victims’ homes, aimed at areas where they believed AA troops were stationed.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said at that time that it is “unprecedented for artillery launched from the village to fall back into the village.”

Local residents told The Irrawaddy during a visit to the village that the artillery shells came from the military’s artillery base on the hill in the village.

“The military’s commander came to the village after the incident to investigate and denied that the troops shot into the village, saying it has never happened before like this,” said U Saw Tun Tha, a village elder from Pan Myaung.

Ma Phyu Hnin Soe was among those hit in Pan Myaung. She was severely injured by shrapnel on her arms.

The shrapnel killed three children: her 16-year-old cousin Ma Nyo Nyo Win and her two nephews—Maung Aung Zin Phyo, 6, and Maung Min Htet Kyaw, 11. Maun Min Htet Kyaw was the eldest of four siblings. He was hit by shrapnel on the street in front of his house and killed instantly.

Ma Phyu Hnin Soe shows a picture of her deceased nephew Aung Zin Phyo, who was killed when artillery shelling struck their homes on Aug. 24, 2019 in Pan Myaung Village, Minbya Township, Rakhine State.  / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Ma Tin Tin Nwe, the mother of Aung Zin Phyo, told The Irrawaddy that when her cousin called her to deliver the news about the death of her son, she was working at a garment factory in Bangkok. It took her three days to arrive back home to the remote village in western Myanmar: from Bangkok to Myawaddy to Yangon to Mrauk-U, traveling by road, plane and boat.

“I just had a chance to see his face for the last time. My uncle made his grave so glass covered his face before it was fully sealed,” Ma Tin Tin Nwe said in tears. She and her husband had to leave their child behind when they left to find work four years ago.

At the time of the funeral, Ma Tin Tin Nwe’s mother was still recovering from injuries to her right arm.

“My mother, at that time, would not heal if she knew about the deaths of the children, so I could not tell her how many were killed in the Aug. 24 incident. I had to hold my tears,” said Ma Tin Tin Nwe. When the funeral was over, she remained at home to take care of her mother and her sister, Ma Phyu Hnin Soe, who are still recovering from their wounds.

Pan Myaung isn’t the only village that’s been affected by shelling.

One month earlier, in the first week of July, four people were killed by shrapnel in Sa Par Htar Village, some five miles away from Minbya’s town center. The shrapnel came from artillery launched from Myaung Bwe Village, according to U Hla Thein Aung, a Rakhine State parliamentarian from Minbya’s first constituency.

He urged both the AA and the military “to stop the war” as both sides claim they care for the people. “If they really sympathize with the civilians, both sides must stop the fighting and find peaceful solutions.”

The lawmaker added that the government should start an inquiry into the causes of the civilian casualties.

Fighting in Minbya has been intense and local residents claimed that the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, used fighter jets to attack AA troops on Aug. 22 and 23.

For months, artillery firing from the base in Pan Myaung has continued almost every day, displacing thousands of people in Mrauk-U and Minbya townships.

“As long as all of our villagers are staying in the village, we will continue staying,” said Ma Phyu Hnin Soe. “If all of them flee, we would not dare to stay here.”