RANGOON — A high-ranking government official confirmed to The Irrawaddy that four Burma Army soldiers were killed in clashes that erupted with local forces in Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township on Tuesday.
The government source said—on the condition of anonymity— that fighting occurred near Kyet Yoe Pyin and Ngakhuya villages and that it was believed to involve suspects in Sunday’s ambush of police headquarters in Kyikanpin and outposts in Kotankauk and Ngakhuya, killing nine policemen and looting firearms.
Maungdaw resident and Rohingya Muslim U Than Naing Soe said that conflict broke out from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., with the army launching artillery into the forest.
“We had never heard that kind of loud explosion before. Villagers were horrified and fled to avoid inspection by government troops. Some villagers are being arrested and taken in for questioning,” he said.
Reporters on the ground have speculated that the armed locals had ties to the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO), a small militant group active along the Bangladeshi border in the 1980s and 1990s, but which has been seemingly defunct ever since.
U Than Naing Soe said he was unsure which group could have been engaging in the clash with government troops, but rejected the allegation that the RSO was involved.
“How is it possible that we have ties with RSO? We are staying under police surveillance and it is very difficult to even travel to nearby villages,” he said.
On Monday morning, a disputed number of local Muslims were also killed in Maungdaw Township after shots were fired by members of the Burma Army in Myothugyi village.
A report in state-run media declared that four men were killed and that in the incident, Burma Army troops had confiscated makeshift guns, as well as bullets and a knife.
The Irrawaddy phoned Maungdaw District Administrator U Ye Htut to verify the total number of casualties on both sides; he repeated the claim of four deaths made in the government report.
Not stated in the update was whether those killed belonged were believed to belong to the same group of men who reportedly attacked three police stations one day earlier.
A joint statement released on Monday by 14 Rohingya organizations in exile accused government soldiers of killing not four, but seven Myothugyi villagers who were unarmed. Maungdaw resident Than Naing Soe corroborated this account.
The groups called on international organizations and governments to pressure the ruling National League for Democracy government to halt such actions, and end persecution against Muslims in the region.
U Hla Soe, a Rohingya from Maungdaw Township, also told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Tuesday that the official figures were wrong.
“All of us know what the authorities said was not true. They just shot and killed people while they attempted to run,” he said.
He said locals fled when the Burma Army came to search their villages in “full force.”
According to the Arakan Gazette, a state government-run online publication, the commander of the army’s Western Command is heading up a team of 350 soldiers who will “hunt” on foot, by chopper and with several navy ships to arrest the remaining 240 suspects—out of an estimated 250—in the attack on the police stations.
Officials confirmed that if security forces are met with violence, they are prepared to shoot in order to obtain suspects: eight have reportedly been killed by police and two have been apprehended and brought into custody. According to Arakan State government secretary U Tin Maung Swe, the two have reportedly confessed to having planned the attack on the border guard posts over three months, with the help of local Muslims in Maungdaw, where the majority self-identify as Rohingya, but are labeled “Bengali” by the government.
Rohingya activists concerned for their safety spoke anonymously to The Irrawaddy, saying that they remain worried that as the conflict grows, innocent people will be caught in the crossfire.
Maungdaw administrator U Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy that an existing curfew in the district—which includes Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathaedaung townships—had been extended from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. and that residents were banned from gathering in groups of five or more.
Burma’s information minister Pe Myint reached Sittwe, Arakan State on Tuesday to receive updates on the situation and to meet with the state’s chief minister Nyi Pu and relevant departments. The Arakan State education department has instructed 400 government schools to shut down in Maungdaw District as of Monday.