Myanmar Military Restricts Movement in Northern Rakhine’s Minbya

By Moe Myint 14 August 2019

YANGON—The Myanmar Military has locked down nearly 30 villages in the rural southeast of Myinba Township in northern Rakhine State since early August, as it considers the area a battle zone, according to local residents and Arakanese lawmakers.

U Hla Thein Aung, a lawmaker representing Minbya in the Rakhine State Parliament, said he and two other lawmakers from the Arakan National Party and some locals traveled to inspect living conditions in besieged villages situated along the Hpon Tha Chaung River in southeastern Minbya but were stopped by army troops in Let Khote Village on Aug. 9.

He said a military unit stationed in Let Khote had set an up an artillery battery on a hill used as a graveyard by the village. It is not the only temporary artillery battery established in a village in Minbya. U Hla Thein Aung said that from the end of July through the first two weeks of August, artillery units were also deployed on a hilltop in Kyein Taung housing the Kyein Taung pagoda, and in a separate location in Hpar Pyo village.

When U Hla Thein Aung asked soldiers in Let Khote village about the reason for the blockade, they said the Hpon Tha Chaung region has been designated an active war zone, so for the sake of travelers’ safety, the military is denying access to the area.

“The military should not block villagers in distress from seeking a safer place on the ground. They are responsible for helping those in need. Now we are seeing the army deny them access instead of helping,” U Hla Thein Aung said.

As the region is dotted with military checkpoints, the villagers living in the region, who number at least 3,000, are unable to shelter in downtown areas. Meanwhile, local relief groups are barred from transporting food and other relief supplies via water or by road to conflict-affected rural Minbya.

The downtown area of Minbya already houses nearly 3,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from rural parts of the township, while an unknown number of IDPs are taking refuge in relatives’ homes in neighboring villages. Even in downtown Minbya, residents are seriously concerned for their own safety due to the presence of the Myanmar military artillery unit on Kyein Taung hilltop, said Minbya resident Ko Nyi Nyi Aung.

The sounds of artillery shelling can be heard clearly from downtown, which is situated between the Lemro River and Kyein Taung Hill, he said. Further fueling the security concerns, the Arakan Army (AA) conducted a roadside bomb attack on a military convoy near the Yar Maung suspension bridge on Wednesday. The bridge is located 4 miles east of downtown Minbya.

Satellite imagery shows the location where a roadside bomb went off near a bridge in downtown Minbya on Wednesday.

Na Yan village General Administration Department (GAD) official U Kyaw Mya Sein said that a clash broke out for nearly one hour in the village, adding that it remained unclear who was doing the shooting. He said he found an unexploded a 60 mm mortar warhead at the scene when he visited the site of the clash in order to make an official report for higher authorities on Wednesday afternoon.

The Irrawaddy made multiple attempts to contact military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun and Western Command chief Colonel Win Zaw Oo on Wednesday afternoon to ask them about the lawmakers’ claims of restricted access to the rural area of Minbya Township, and their reports that IDPs were being prevented from leaving villages, but the phone calls went unanswered.

Ko Nyi Nyi Aung said, “Only [people in] the nearest villages to downtown Minbya are allowed to travel; those on the other side of the Yar Maung Bridge are banned from crossing the bridge. Downtown residents dare not visit neighboring Mrauk-U, either.”

Fighting broke out in suburban areas of Minbya at noon, forcing schools and markets to close. Ko Nyi Nyi Aung said nearly half of Minbya Township’s 204 villages had lost their seasonal crops due to armed clashes in the monsoon season.

“Locals are overwhelmingly concerned about unexpected clashes in the town. I would like to urge [the warring parties] to fight anywhere in the forested areas; don’t bring armed violence into the town,” said Ko Nyi Nyi Aung.

He called on the government to address armed conflict through political means, but this still seems a remote possibility with the National League for Democracy-led government’s peace body and AA representatives still unable to set a venue for peace talks.

Minbya is one of eight townships in northern Rakhine housing a total of more than 160,000 residents that have been without internet access for 54 days, due a government-imposed shutdown that began in June. According to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a Sittwe-based rights watchdog, more than 50,000 people, mostly from northern Rakhine, have been displaced due to fighting between the AA and the army since early this year.

Tens of thousands of IDPs are relying mainly on humanitarian aid from local civil society groups, but aid shipments to rural areas are very often banned by the military. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program have been allowed to provide some relief supplies to IDPs.

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