Rakhine Govt Backtracks After Warning of Myanmar Military Clearance Operations Prompts Thousands to Flee

By Htet Naing Zaw 29 June 2020

NAYPYITAW—A Rakhine State government official said the state has withdrawn a warning it issued to local residents about planned military operations in Rathedaung Township, following a misunderstanding by local residents and the international community, as well as an evacuation order by the local administration that prompted thousands to flee their homes.

Rakhine State Border and Security Minister Colonel Min Than said the state government withdrew its warning that the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, would carry out clearance operations in Rathedaung Township on Friday because locals misunderstood the nature of the operations.

The military’s Northwestern Command informed the state government on June 21 that it would soon carry out clearance operations in response to intelligence that around 200 Arakan Army (AA) troops had arrived near Kyauktan Village in the north of Rathedaung Township.

Col. Min Than then asked the Rathedaung Township administrator on June 23 to make sure local residents are not harmed in the possible clashes around Kyauktan Village.

“It appeared that the township administrator misunderstood this. He issued an order to around 40 villages [asking local residents to leave]. In fact, it was not necessary,” said Col. Min Than. “There are only four or five villages around Kyauktan. We gave the warning out of concern their safety. We only knew about the administrator’s order later, so people were concerned.”

Gripped by fear, thousands of local residents fled from their villages. Around a thousand people have fled to urban Rathedaung town alone, according to the township’s lawmaker in the Lower House, Daw Khin Saw Wai.

“Everyone had to run. Such an order should not be issued because it only deepens hatred. Displaced people are in desperate trouble there. They can’t go to their farms. Issuing such an order imposes a heavier burden on villagers who are already in a state of panic,” said the lawmaker who is helping those who have recently fled.

There are 43 villages in the neighborhood of Kyauktan, according to Daw Khin Saw Wai, and residents have frequently reported clashes in or near four or five of the villages.

“The government must assume responsibility if it is to issue such a warning. It must take responsibility to evacuate the local residents. It should work in cooperation with us to evacuate the local residents. Issuing such an order is not acceptable,” said Daw Khin Saw Wai.

The Tatmadaw asked local residents in Kyauktan to leave because it said AA troops were recently deployed near Tatmadaw troops in the area and Kyauktan Village sits between the two sides.

Military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said clashes are still ongoing in the area because the AA has deployed its troops across Rathedaung and Buthidaung townships.

“What the Tatmadaw said is that because it would attack the AA in Kyauktan, it asked any remaining villagers to leave because they could be harmed,” said Col. Min Than.

Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun also said the international community has a misunderstanding about the Tatmadaw’s so-called clearance operations.

He said that, to the Tatmadaw, the term means a counter-insurgency operation, but the international community defines it as the removal of villages and targeting of civilians.

Government spokesman U Zaw Htay said the government has asked both the Myanmar military and police not to use the term “clearance operations” as it can cause misunderstanding.

He said he has again asked the state border and security minister and the military’s Northwestern Command not to use the term.

Last week’s reports of military clearance operations in Kyauktan prompted the diplomatic missions in Myanmar from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdoms and the United States to issue a statement on Saturday highlighting their concerns about such operations and the worsening humanitarian and security situation in Rakhine and southern Chin State.

“We are aware of the historic impacts of such operations disproportionately affecting civilians,” the statement read. “Access for humanitarian organizations must be allowed to provide appropriate response, particularly as communities respond to COVID-19 and the monsoon season.”

Clashes erupted in 2019 between the AA and the military when the ethnic armed group returned to its homeland of Rakhine State. Despite the government’s peace process programs, the two sides have not signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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