RANGOON — A Chin political party released a statement on Tuesday demanding that both the Burma Army and the Arakan Army stop conscripting forced labor, burning houses and torturing locals in rural areas of Paletwa Township in southern Chin State.
Salai Ceu Bik Thawng, secretary of the Chin National Democratic Party, said that three houses in Kin Ta Lin village were burned down during fighting on June 6 between the Arakan Army and the Burma Army.
Khumi, a local Chin media outlet, accused Arakan Army soldiers of committing the arson as a punishment against villagers suspected of supplying information to Burma Army columns. However, the CNDP secretary declined to blame any particular group for this incident.
Paletwa is among the most impoverished townships in Chin State, already Burma’s poorest state or division according to many indicators. It lacks reliable transportation infrastructure and is strung over steep mountain ranges. The conflict zone is in the north of the township, with no sealed road access: it takes several hours to reach by boat from the main town.
According to the CNDP secretary, about 10,000 people living in 43 villages are situated in this conflict zone.
At the end of last year, dozens of skirmishes broke out between the Arakan Army and the Burma Army. Three hundred fifty residents fled after both sides began to conscript villagers as porters. They are currently being sheltered in Pyaing Zo village, with Chin civil society organizations providing humanitarian assistance.
“Villagers are frightened to forage for forest products because landmines have significantly increased along the mountainsides,” said the CNDP secretary. He held both sides responsible for this, and said that landmines had killed three villagers over the past three months.
On April 30, 2015, under the previous government of President Thein Sein, 10 village administrators in Paletwa Township sent a letter to the then Chin State Chief Minister Pu Hung Ngai complaining of deteriorating conditions, with villagers being detained for several months by the Arakan Army, a proliferation of landmines and food shortages.
Arakan Army spokesman Khine Thukha refuted allegations made by the CNDP and others of abuses against civilians: “If we really did such things, show us the evidence, because we have strong evidence of our own. We are protecting the civilians as much as we can.”
He said that the various abuses had been carried out by the Burma Army battalion stationed in Kin Ta Lin village, adding that using villagers as a “human shield” was particularly common alongside torturing villagers to obtain information about the Arakan Army.
Although he also denied allegations of forced labor conscription, he acknowledged that the Arakan Army had planted landmines, claiming it was a necessary “security” measure, used sparingly according to “limits.”
Burma Army communication officer Col Khin Maung Cho could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The government is preparing for formal peace talks with ethnic armed groups at a conference scheduled for late August, and has sought the participation of even those groups that refused to sign—or were excluded from—the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement last year.
However, Burma’s military has insisted that the Arakan Army—along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army—disarm before taking part in peace talks. The three ethnic armed groups have so far refused.
“Peace depends on the military’s magnanimity,” concluded Khine Thukha, the Arakan Army spokesman.