YANGON—The Rakhine State government imposed a curfew in five townships in the north of the state on Tuesday afternoon in response to the intensifying conflict between Myanmar Army troops and the Arakan Army (AA).
On Monday evening, Rakhine State Border Affairs Minister Colonel Phone Tint sent a letter dated April 1 to the regional administrative committees of Sittwe and Mrauk-U, as well as the heads of the five administrative committees in the affected townships: Ponnaygun, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Minbyar.
The letter stated that a series of violent incidents against police and soldiers in Rakhine from January to March 26 had resulted in the deaths of members of the security forces and the destruction of state property. It requested the authorities impose a curfew in line with Section 144 of the Criminal Code in five townships in order to maintain law and order, stability, and economic and social stability.
U Win Myint, the National League for Democracy (NLD)-appointed state minister for municipal affairs, confirmed to The Irrawaddy over the phone that the Union government had authorized the Rakhine State cabinet to impose the curfew. He declined to comment further as he had been traveling the whole day with other state cabinet members in southern Rakhine.
The curfew order bans residents of both rural and urban areas in the aforementioned five townships from leaving their homes between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. starting Tuesday. Union lawmaker U Aung Thaung Shwe, who represents Rathedaung constituency for the Arakan National Party (ANP), said the entire northern region was in a state of anarchy at the moment; he said that on almost every issue facing Rakhine, the administrative body and the legislature were generating plans without cooperating with each other.
“The authorities here have been doing whatever they want. The state is now completely lawless and the newly imposed curfew is virtually an unofficial declaration of martial law,” MP Aung Thaung Shwe said.
Aung Thaung Shwe said such a curfew was nothing new to the residents of his township, as the military and authorities had implemented the same order in 2016 after Border Guard security outposts were attacked by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). The military operation against ARSA in 2017 prompted more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Rights groups have since demanded that Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court as having had ultimate responsibility for the crisis.
Aung Thaung Shwe feared the curfew would put ordinary people living in the five townships in danger, as it would make it hard for them to seek transportation for emergency medical treatment at hospitals at night. According to him, more than 10,000 displaced residents of 20 villages in his township are sheltering in five temporary IDP camps.
Among the 20 villages, five are in Rathedaung and are home to Rohingya residents. They have sought refuge in two IDP camps, while the rest are Arakanese sheltering in three IDP camps as well as in neighboring villages. Local authorities as well as relief groups are currently unable to provide accurate and timely information on the IPD population for all of northern Rakhine, according to MP U Aung Thaung Shwe, though according to one estimate their number could be around 20,000.
“The government isn’t looking after the IDPs,” U Aung Thaung Shwe said.
Local ethnic affairs expert U Maung Maung Soe corroborated the view of U Aung Thaung Shwe that the restriction on traveling at night posed a health concern for local residents. He added that the order had brought Mrauk-U’s entire tourism sector to a screeching halt. He suggested local authorities and security forces set up an appropriate mechanism to handle health emergencies and make exceptions for those who need to travel due to urgent matters.
The curfew, which covers almost the entirety of northern Rakhine, comes after a recent press conference in which President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay said martial law would not be necessary in Rakhine State.
The U.S Embassy in Rangoon announced on Tuesday afternoon that it is deeply concerned about harm to civilians during clashes between the AA and the Myanmar Army in Rakhine and Chin states. It urged both sides to renew their efforts to end the fighting and work toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The embassy also expressed concern about restrictions on access to humanitarian aid for more than 17,000 civilians currently displaced. It said that while the authorities had granted partial access to relief groups, which had allowed food assistance to reach some displaced people, “significant humanitarian gaps remain.”
The blocking of humanitarian aid has prevented at least 95,000 additional civilians from receiving essential services, such as health care, education and clean water, in five Rakhine State townships since January 2019.