Road, Bridge Construction Halted by Fighting in N. Rakhine

By Htet Naing Zaw 20 May 2019

NAYPYITAW—Ongoing clashes between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA) have halted some road and bridge construction projects in northern Rakhine State, according to Deputy Construction Minister U Kyaw Lin.

Speaking to reporters at a press conference at the ministry in Naypyitaw on Friday, the deputy minister said construction workers have been withdrawn from roadworks on the Sittwe-Ponnagyun-Rathedaung-Buthidaung section of road due to ongoing clashes. Travel on the road is now prohibited.

Construction workers have also been recalled from Kyauktaw due to the fighting there, he said.

“If you ask me if it is dangerous [to work in those conflict areas], my answer is yes. But we have no choice, as we are civil servants. We have had a staff member abducted there, and we still can’t make contact,” the minister said, without giving details.

Besides the fighting, construction workers in northern Rakhine State face the dangers of wild elephants and malaria. The ministry therefore has offered an incentive—its staff can transfer to any place they like after completing the projects in Rakhine.

“There have been cases of both the Tatmadaw and the AA interrogating construction workers to examine if they have ties with the other side. So, the Construction Ministry is concerned about it, and therefore has suspended work there,” said Lower House lawmaker Daw Khin Saw Wai of Rathaedaung Township.

“Nobody would risk their lives to complete the project while clashes are going on. If the clashes continue, Rakhine State, which is already underdeveloped, will further lag behind,” she added.

However, gravel roads have been paved in some parts of the region, the deputy minister said.

In April, the AA abducted 13 employees — 11 men and two women — of the Hsu Htoo San Construction Co., which is building a section of the Paletwa-Mizoram Road in Paletwa Township. It later released the two women and three of the men, but the eight others remain detained.

The AA has accused them of being former members of the Myanmar military’s intelligence unit, and of still working for the Myanmar Army.

Besides those eight employees, the AA took 120 civilians from Chin State’s Paletwa into Bangladesh, and only two have so far managed to escape, Tatmadaw spokesman Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun told The Irrawaddy.

“They are still being detained. They were forced to hold a press conference after they arrived in Bangladesh. The [AA] attempted to force them to say that they had been rescued by the AA. But the detainees refused to say so, and said that they were abducted. So the AA beat them, but two were able to escape,” the military spokesperson said.

The AA gave a different account, saying it was providing shelter for Paletwa residents displaced by the fighting in the area.

According to the military, 134 people are currently being detained by the AA.

In a separate incident on March 16, the AA opened fire on a vessel carrying steel trusses to be used to build a bridge in Paletwa. The group torched the vessel after taking the crew to shore. According to the Khumi Affairs Coordination Council, building materials including trusses, paint and high-tension bolts worth US$300,000 (460.77 million kyats) were destroyed in the attack.

Local insurance company IKBZ has yet to pay out a claim on the loss.

The AA said it attacked the vessel because it was not informed of the shipment. AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha said companies must send lists of workers and materials to be transported into its areas of operation in advance.

Another shipment of building materials for the project was delivered successfully with the assistance of Army and Navy convoys.

The bridge was initially scheduled to be inaugurated on Chin State Day, which falls on Feb. 20, 2020. The Construction Ministry will be able to complete it on schedule if it receives the insurance payout from IKBZ in time, the deputy minister said.

Clashes that erupted in November last year have displaced over 10,000 civilians in Paletwa and northern Rakhine State.

There is currently no sign of a de-escalation, though both the Tatmadaw and the AA have talked about holding a political dialogue to bring about peace in Rakhine.