Military Claims of Arakan Rebels Disguising Selves as Civilians Met With Doubt

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 28 March 2019

YANGON — Lawmakers and residents of northern Rakhine State expressed dismay at the military’s recent claim that fighters for the rebel Arakan Army (AA) were conducting operations out of uniform, calling it an excuse to target civilians.

“[AA troops] have started to wear black tracksuits,” Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said at a press conference in Naypyitaw on Monday.

“All [AA fighters] that we see in the villages were dressed that way. [AA fighters] dressed that way shot [at soldiers]. [AA fighters] dressed that way planted mines. All those caught while planting mines on the road were dressed that way. And those caught near the villages were dressed in tracksuits,” he added.

Of the 25 civilians from Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships The Irrawaddy interviewed about the claim by the military, or Tatmadaw, all rejected it.

“I watched the live broadcast of the Tatmadaw’s press conference streamed by the news agencies. I was shocked to hear they said that those wearing tracksuits are with the AA. We feel like [the Tatmadaw] is targeting civilians,” said U Khaing Kyaw Than, from Mrauk-U.

On the same day as the press conference, a boatman was shot dead near the village of Amyet Taung in Rathedaung. He was wearing a yellow tracksuit at the time.

U Maung Than Sein, a regional lawmaker representing Kyauktaw, said it was normal for rural residents in Rakhine who work on the water to wear tracksuits and that he too was shocked by the military’s claim.

“It is wrong to mix up civilians and the AA. And it is very clear that the boatman who was shot dead was an innocent civilian who made an honest living. So we feel sorry on behalf of the people,” he said.

AA spokesman Khaing Thukha accused the military of making the claim to cover up its targeting of civilians.

“They are saying this in order to cover up their war crimes against civilians. We have never used civilians as shields. We love people more than the Bamar Army does and we don’t do anything that harms the people,” he said.

U Maung Than Sein said civilians were bearing the brunt of the fighting between the military and AA, which has displaced some 10,000 people in northern Rakhine and southern Chin State since late November.

When five civilians were found dead inside a rudimentary bomb shelter in Buthidaung’s Si Taung Village on March 21, the military said they died from artillery fire. But U Maung Than Sein did not believe it.

“It is impossible that all five people in the hole died [that way]. We are not children. It is easy to figure out who killed them,” he said. “There was no security in the past, there is no security at present, and it is actually worse.”

At Monday’s press conference, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied that the military targeted civilians in Si Taung and said there had been a fight with the AA near the village.

Lower House lawmaker U Aung Thaung Shwe, who visited Si Taung, said soldiers had not engaged the AA near the village and accused the military of shooting at civilians deliberately.

On the night of March 18 in Mrauk-U, seven civilians were injured by bullets and artillery and a residential home hit by a mortar shell caught fire and burned down. Shelling in recent days had also damaged some historic Buddhist temples in the area, once the capital of the Arakan Kingdom.

Residents of Mrauk-U said they saw soldiers shooting at houses while driving through town on trucks. Col. Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Command, said the soldiers had been attacked by AA fighters and were returning fire. The AA denied the claim.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.