Arakan State’s Internally Displaced Left Out in the Cold

By Moe Myint 9 May 2016

RANGOON — On April 16, celebrations for the Buddhist New Year’s Water Festival were being held around Arakan State. Music blared throughout towns and villages, and the people ate, drank and merrily splashed water on each other. But for thousands of Arakanese, the festivities were cut short by the sound of gunfire and explosions.

Fighting between the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization, and the Burma Army last month engulfed villages in four townships, around 100 miles north of the state capital Sittwe.

Thousands were forced from their homes, and at least 1,500 remain displaced, living in monasteries or other temporary shelters. With more violence breaking out Monday, the displaced people remain reluctant to return home, and a humanitarian crisis is brewing, which activists say is being ignored by international and domestic relief organizations.

Local volunteer groups and civil society organizations (CSO) have been providing food and blankets, but due to poor funding, they are worried that the additional challenges posed by the coming rainy season may stretch their resources to the breaking point.

Wai Hun Aung, a relief worker for the Wunlark Development Foundation, has been visiting the four townships—Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Kyauktaw and Ponnagyun. There he found that some of the displaced people have developed fevers and colds, but his foundation was not allowed to provide any medicine because it had not received approval from the Ministry of Health.

“There are many UN and other international organizations based in Sittwe,” Win Hun Aung said. “But I haven’t seen any support from them going to the internally displaced Arakanese.”

“I am really shocked by their hesitation in providing aid for the victims,” he said.

“The UN distributed non-food items such as sleeping mats, cooking utensils, and hygiene kits” on a visit to Kyauktaw on April 26 and 27, Pierre Peron, communications officer from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Irrawaddy in an email.

According to an assessment by Wunlark, there are more than 1,700 internally displaced people due to the recent conflict.

Shelling in the Jungle

According to Arakan Army spokesperson Khine Thu Kha, frequent skirmishes have broken out in the area around Lawrama Peak, a mountain that straddles all four of the affected townships.

The Arakan Army claimed that on April 23 and 24 its snipers killed two soldiers and two officers in an ambush on the Burma Army before pulling back into the jungle.

On May 1 and 2, a Burma Army battalion began shelling forested areas around Lawrama Peak, and military helicopters conducted reconnaissance operations in the area. The Burma Army may reinforce its troops on the frontline with three more battalions, meaning the Arakan Army could be facing more than 3,000 government soldiers, according to Khine Thu Kha.

Kyauktaw residents told The Irrawaddy they heard loud explosions coming from the jungle where the Arakan Army is suspected to have camps.

The Burma Army fired artillery randomly into the deep forest in early May, confirmed Khine Myo Tun, spokesman for the Arakan Liberation Army (ALP), an ethnic armed group that signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the previous government, ostensibly ending two decades of fighting with the Burma Army.

The Burma Army last week sought to put blame for the recent conflict on the Arakan Army.

Union Minister for Defense Lt-Gen Sein Win told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Burma Army, known as the Tatmadaw in Burmese, was “safeguarding the country against all internal and external dangers in accordance with Article 339 of the Constitution,” state media reported. The minister painted the Arakan Army as a threat to democracy and instigator of the recent hostilities.

“His claims are the same as the ones the military regime used. It shows they haven’t changed yet,” Khine Thu Kha said. “In contrast, the civilian government consistently emphasizes democracy and a federal union as their top priorities, things the Tatmadaw still neglects.”

Last week, the Union Parliament discussed a proposal to respond to the conflict, but lawmakers opted largely to defer the matter, saying the Arakan Army would be invited to the broader, nationwide peace negotiations expected to be convened by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in the next few months.

“The Parliament, which reflects the voices and wishes of people, has neglected the proposal on internal peace and national reconciliation; it has ignored the stance of the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army and the demands on behalf of Arakanese people,” an Arakan Army statement responding to lawmakers’ deliberations read. “The Tatmadaw has threatened us openly in the Parliament and appears to be forcing the entire Arakanese people onto the path of armed revolution while pushing them away from the Union.”

Captives, Casualties and Alliances

Last week in Naypyidaw, military lawmakers told The Irrawaddy the Arakan Army supported the Kachin and Kokang ethnic armed organizations in their fight with the Burma Army, and had launched unprovoked attacks against the Burma Army in Arakan State.

The Arakan Army’s communications officer denied the assertion that they had been attacking Burma Army troops without provocation, and declined to comment on the size and location of the Arakanese group’s forces.

In a recent interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma, Arakan Army leader Tun Myat Naing said Burma Army troops had entered Arakan Army territory, resulting in several minor clashes and villagers fleeing the region.

According to the Arakan leader, one of the group’s soldiers was killed in the April 16 skirmish, nine were wounded and one was seriously injured. He claimed that Arakan Army forces—fighting on their home turf and accustomed to jungle warfare—were able to inflict 60 casualties on the Burma Army.

The Arakan Army head also confirmed the military parliamentarians’ statements about their ethnic alliances. “The AA has had joint operations with the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army,” he said. “We have many allies.”

Khine Myo Tun, Arakan Liberation Party (ALP) spokesperson, speculated that Arakan Army forces were deep in the jungle around Lawrama Peak and that the group counted around 200 soldiers within its ranks.

Law of the Jungle

Despite the ALP having signed the ceasefire pact with the previous government, its relationship with the military has grown tense.

On April 24, the ALP issued a statement alleging the Burma Army committed war crimes and violated the Geneva Convention by forcing locals to serve as porters and landmine sweepers.

Arakan States’ minister of Security and Border Affairs, Col. Htein Lin, summoned ALP representative to his office, demanding evidence for the accusations. ALP spokesperson Khine Myo Tun provided 15 audio and video files as evidence, but the ministry’s response was instead to file charges of defamation against him.

“Those files are proof that war crimes were committed,” Khine Myo Tun said.

The ALP has since deployed people to areas where they claim war crimes have been committed to conduct further investigations and gather more evidence.

A villager from one of the areas, U Nga Lone Taung, said he was cut by a broken bottle wielded by a Burma Army soldier, and now he is organizing victims who were forced into labor or physically assaulted by government troops.

Help Wanted

The Wunlark Development Foundation has submitted a request for funding to the Arakan State government. But they are not holding out much hope because they have been told that the previous state administration had already spent half of the 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

“I haven’t heard a specified budget earmarked for the internally displaced people,’’ said Wunlark’s Wai Hun Aung.

Min Aung, a National League for Democracy-appointed minister in the Arakan State government, has visited villages and monasteries where the internally displaced are living temporarily. “The villagers are afraid of the fighting,” he said. “They will return to their villages when the gunfire and bombing has stopped.”

There is no plan for relocation yet, but it is expected that the displaced people will be able to eventually return home.

“Their villages were not burned down,” Min Aung said, confirming that a significant portion of the government’s budget had indeed already been spent, although he said it was less than 50 percent.

The Arakan State parliament was expected to take up the issue on Monday.

Htet Naing Zaw contributed reporting from Naypyidaw.