Reporter’s Notebook: On the Ground in Mrauk-U

By Moe Myint 1 April 2019

YANGON—It is possible I would not be alive to write this had I opted to have dinner at Khant restaurant, opposite the KBZ Bank in northern Rakhine State’s ancient city of Mrauk-U, on March 18, as that evening Army troops opened fire on homes in the area.

The main road crosses through the downtown quarter for a length of about 3.6 km. In the evening, a friend suggested that I eat out in a neighborhood where Arakanese traditional cuisine and salads are available. At about 6:30 p.m., the situation in the town was peaceful. Many people were strolling along the roads, and the teashops were crowded with people.

Then, starting at 7.20 p.m., a terrifying message reached us from local residents; a Myanmar Army convoy had entered Mrauk-U town shooting. A few minutes later, a series of gunshots and deafening artillery explosions could be heard.

The only thing separating the restaurant from the main road—a distance of about 200m—was a stretch of grassland. Simultaneously, the sound of rifle fire and artillery bursts could be heard, as well as the sound of bullets whizzing through the air. A group of women screamed as bullets struck the restaurant.

Within half an hour, six wounded

Almost immediately, netizens based in Mrauk-U posted a list of casualties. A total of six residents were injured in the shelling and gunfire. The following morning, on March 19, I was able to visit the scene of the shooting. The KBZ Bank branch’s front door was blown off and the walls were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Several locals who were lucky to have been spared the shooting recounted their ordeal to me at the scene on Tuesday morning. But judging from their accounts and my own experience as a firsthand witness, the rationale for the Mrauk-U shooting provided by the Office of the Commander-in-Chief—that the attack was in response to an ambush of the convoy by Arakan Army (AA) members downtown—doesn’t make sense.

A number of questions immediately occurred to me in response to this explanation: If the AA really ambushed the Army troops, why was no one hurt in the military convoy? The Army said there were no casualties on its side on the day. And why would they intentionally fire dozens of rounds at a KBZ Bank office in response to an ambush?

KBZ Bank doesn’t seem so stupid as to accept AA rebels. Along the road, I saw dozens of spent 5.56mm rounds, several spent 40 mm grenade casings, and mortar shells of various sizes—all Myanmar Army ammunition. Not even hotels that mostly cater to foreigners, including the Nawarat Hotel, Prince Hotel and Hotel Mrauk-U, were spared the attack.

The front door of the KBZ Bank building in Mrauk-U is shattered after being shot up by Myanmar Army troops during their attack on the town on March 18. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

One bullet struck the dining room of the Nawarat Hotel. On March 19, more than a dozen foreigners and local tourists from Yangon fled to the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, by fast boat or by car, as shelling could clearly be heard from downtown Mrauk-U well into the morning.

There are two surveillance cameras positioned in front of KBZ Bank. The CCTV footage would surely contain some evidence.

What happened before the shooting?

Before the fierce shooting erupted in Mrauk-U, a convoy of about 11 Army trucks carrying fully equipped soldiers from Sittwe to Mrauk-U was attacked at about 6.30 p.m. by AA soldiers near Kyauk Kyat and Taung Oo villages, 32 km from downtown Mrauk-U, not far from the Mahamuni pagoda in Kyauktaw Township.

High-ranking AA officers told me that three Army trucks were completely destroyed by RPG attacks. Locals estimated that at least 20 soldiers were killed on the spot. The information I received from the AA was that this occurred before the Army convoy began shooting in downtown Mrauk-U at about 6:50 p.m.

Later, eight military trucks—likely from the military convoy ambushed by the AA in the rural area—began firing upon civilians in Mrauk-U. The shooting occurred unexpectedly, causing chaos among residents and shopkeepers along the main road. Some who were not able to flee described lying on the floor during the shooting.

Several structures including some homes were damaged by artillery explosions and gunfire. On the morning of March 19, the town’s busiest place, Mrauk-U municipal market, was locked down and the surrounding roads deserted. The sounds of shelling and ambulance sirens were everywhere. The area’s iconic temples, Chit Thaung and Htuk Kan Thein, were devoid of vendors and tourists.

Spent 5.56mm rounds found on March 19 at a location where the Myanmar Army opened fire in downtown Mrauk-U the previous day. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

Artillery barrages day in, day out

All of the new arrivals to the urban area on March 19 were displaced residents of neighboring villages, most of them from Ywar Haung Taw. As of this week, the displaced population in northern Rakhine alone is in excess of 20,000. Yaung Haung Taw was struck by 120-mm and 60-mm mortar shells believed to have been fired by Police Regiment No. 31 or Light Infantry Battalion No. 540 based in Mrauk-U.

Victims and witnesses, including the abbot of Ywar Haung Taw monastery, told me there had been no provocation by the AA prior to the Tatmadaw’s attack on the village. He said the village’s bamboo thatch homes were destroyed by gunfire, and one couple was wounded by a 120-mm mortar explosion.

During my one-week visit to Mrauk-U, the police regiment situated near Koe Thaung temple fired between 40-60 howitzer shells every day into mountains where AA rebels are thought to be based near Min Byar Township’s Pan Myaung village.

Some domestic tourists from Yangon told me they heard artillery explosions and gunshots for the first time in their life, and decided to end their vacation abruptly when the violence reached the town. Their holiday may have been ruined, but at least they now know the reality of the situation in Mrauk-U and will have a better understanding of the plight of displaced and injured locals.

To my dismay, on social media, many people from big cities far from Mrauk-U reacted very differently to the situation. Even domestic tourists couldn’t bear to spend even a few days in Mrauk-U; for the town’s residents it must be a nightmare having to live through gunfire and shelling right in front of their doors.

Never in the past six decades have the Arakanese experienced such attacks on a downtown area, including artillery shelling. Some elderly people in the town have been traumatized by the gunfire, fleeing inside when a car backfires on the road.

Traveling amid shelling

Whenever a stranger passes by in a neighborhood, the locals eye them suspiciously, especially at someone like me, driving through the town alone despite the daytime artillery shelling. As a reporter on the ground, meeting eyewitnesses is essential, but many locals hesitated to travel with me as a guide to the active conflict zone.

Their reluctance is understandable. It is an unnerving experience to travel near a police regiment that fires artillery shells all day and is situated on the way to Ywar Haung Taw village, where about 10 artillery rounds landed, while Army fighter jets reportedly bombed the forests near neighboring Pan Myaung village about 12 km east of downtown Mrauk-U. Given the random artillery firing, it’s not safe to go there. One displaced villager, Karen Chay, who sought refuge in Chit Thaung monastery, agreed to lead the way to his village and we were able to interview witnesses and photograph eight projectiles collected by villagers.

Collected 120mm and 60mm mortar shells are displayed at Ywar Haung Taw monastery on March 20. / Moe Myint / The Irrawaddy

On my third day in Mrauk-U, March 19, I learned that the Army used several attack helicopters and fighter jets against AA fighters in the mountains in neighboring Min Byar Township’s Pan Myaung village for three days.

Pan Myaung, which comprises more than 2,000 households and has a market, hospital and several monasteries, has been serving as a home to about 2,000 IDPs from neighboring villages. They are terrified of being detained or killed by LID Nos. 55 and 22, which are deployed in their region.

Although I wanted to observe the reality with my own eyes in Pan Myaung, locals from Mrauk-U would not travel there with me.

Rights abuses by soldiers

On March 21, my fifth day in Mrauk-U, I was able to meet up with Pan Myaung locals and spent one night in the village. On the morning of March 22, I awoke to the sound of shelling. In fact, the Army’s tactical operation base is situated right behind a hill near Pan Myaung monastery. That monastery is one of two that currently house about 1,000 displaced villagers.

Whenever the Army fired an artillery round, dozens of children playing in the monastery compound ran into the structure. Displaced villagers told me they are more scared of gunfire than artillery explosions. Villagers showed me the mountains where Army attack helicopters and fighter jets attacked 5 km away, on the opposite side of the Army tactical base.

Villagers recalled that some 100 soldiers raided areas in Pan Myaung model village despite not having engaged the AA there. Army troops fired at homes, tortured for hours more than 120 villagers deemed to be suspicious, and detained four civilians from the village.

Eight residents of Pan Myaung village corroborated the reports of torture by Army troops, and of shooting and looting on March 19. About six patients I spoke to in Mrauk-U Hospital with gunshot and artillery shrapnel wounds sustained in Mrauk-U and Min Byar townships said Army troops shot them for no reason.

Maung Win Yee, who was injured by an exploding artillery shell in downtown Mrauk-U on Monday night, sits in the medical ward of Mrauk-U Hospital, in Rakhine State, on Tuesday morning. / Irrawaddy

Senior Army officers denied that soldiers from LID Nos. 22 and 55, or from regional battalions in northern Rakhine, had committed rights abuses, but soldiers from LID No. 22 handed 100,000 kyats to the patients in Mrauk-U Hospital last week.

Ma Nandar Khine, daughter of wounded local resident Daw Than Than Win from Pan Myaung village, said that she only took the money because she was terrified of the soldiers, and if possible would like to return the cash.