YANGON—About 250 newly displaced Arakanese and ethnic Chin from Chin State’s Paletwa Township were driven from their homes into neighboring Bangladesh last week by fierce fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA). Some of the children in the group are reportedly gravely ill as the refugees lack food, clothing and shelter in the area’s cold conditions, a rights worker said.
Medical and other aid workers were reportedly trying to reach the group, but the area they have fled into is extremely difficult to reach.
Win Thein, a member of Bangladesh’s Bandarban District Human Rights Commission based in Ruma upazila (sub-district), told The Irrawaddy that over the weekend he met with the displaced villagers near a small village in a densely forested area known locally as Thuisa Para, about 11 km from the Remakri BGB (Border Guards Bangladesh) Camp.
He said that according to the displaced people, the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) torched homes in Kha Maung Wa village and Kin Tha Lin village in the upper Paletwa region last week. A group of 124 ethnic Chin arrived in Bandarban District’s Ruma Township on Sunday. The following day, 126 Arakanese people from various villages entered the same area.
“We can’t reach that region by car or boat; trekking is the only option. If we travel from Ruma Township it takes almost one day,” Win Thein said.
According to initial reports from Ruma residents, the IDPs trekked for a couple of days to reach the Remakri region from the western Myanmar border. Relief groups could not reach Remakri by car; they had to take a boat trip from Ruma town and then make a six-hour trek to reach Thuisa village. The IDPs had been denied entry by local residents due to a lack of facilities there. Thus, all refugees are temporarily camping near a stream without enough food, tarpaulins or blankets.
Win Thein said the group included 60 children, including a few newborns. The refugees were without blankets or warm clothes. He said that their lack of warm clothing posed a threat of pneumonia among the children, adding that about five of the children had been unconscious since Monday.
When he returned to Ruma town from Remakri, he sent doctors and other relief workers to rescue the children and provide some emergency medical aid to the refugees.
He explained that the climate in the mountains in the area at this time of year is very cold, not unlike the hilly region of Shan State in northern Myanmar.
The refugees were not allowed to enter Thuisa village as it does not have sufficient shelter for them, and the entire village relies on shifting cultivation and growing seasonal fruits. “All they have are machetes and bamboo baskets. That’s all I could see,” he said.
“I have no idea what’s happening there right now because that region is out of the range of telecom networks,” Win Thein said.
Another activist from Ruma, Aye Tun, also went to meet the displaced Arakanese and Chin people in the Remakri region. He said arrangements were being made to transport tarpaulins to the refugees so they could put up modest temporary shelters near the stream.
He said that some local Marma people were helping by giving food to the refugees. The authorities had provided no support or humanitarian assistance to the refugees as of Wednesday. Despite the presence of Bangladesh border guards in the region, however, the refugees were not being driven back into Myanmar. Aye Tun said that the local Marma and hill tract people of Bangladesh are familiar with the Arakanese and Chin, and willing to assist the refugees.
“Even the adults could not stay longer without warm clothes in that densely forested area; just imagine the kids without blankets at night and sleeping on the ground,” Aye Tun said.
District Human Rights Commission member Win Thein said he was told by refugees that Myanmar Army soldiers set some homes alight in Kin Ta Lin village, which is home to 40 families, and Kha Maung Wa, which has 60 homes. It was unclear Wednesday whether the entire villages had been burned to the ground.
He said the displaced Arakanese villagers had initially wanted to flee to the nearest townships, Kyauktaw and Paletwa, but as the fighting had been going on for several days, they decided to cross the Bangladesh border and trekked for two days. On the way to Bandarban district, they met up with AA soldiers on the Myanmar border, who gave them some rice.
The Irrawaddy could not independently verify the claims of the Bangladesh-based human rights group. Regarding the allegations of the villagers, The Irrawaddy attempted to phone a brigadier-general at the Office of the Commander-in-Chief for comment but the calls went unanswered on Wednesday.
AA spokesman U Khine Thuka told The Irrawaddy that the group was taking care of about 120 displaced villagers from Paletwa in its area of control on the Myanmar border. He explained that based on their own accounts, the refugees had been in a chaotic situation since the fighting broke out, with families being separated.
Win Thein said that Bangladeshi authorities summoned Myanmar’s envoy to Bangladesh at least twice in recent days to discuss the new refugee arrivals in Bandarban District. He said they reminded the envoy that Myanmar has still not repatriated the nearly 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh in 2017, and was now allegedly driving ethnic groups out of its territory again.
“The Bangladesh authorities are now really mad at the Myanmar Army, as it is creating more troubles for Bangladesh,” he said.
As a human rights defender, Win Thein urged both Myanmar and Bangladesh authorities not to block aid shipments to the region. If they fail to transport necessary medicines and food to the refugees, the children who had just moved into a cold climate from a tropical zone were at risk of developing deadly pneumonia, he said.