YANGON – A military column raided an entire village and looted gold, jewelry, cash and dozens of mobile phones from the villagers of Tha Mee Hla Village in Rathedaung Township in northern Rakhine State on Saturday, according to Arakanese lawmakers.
Rathedaung Township representative, Lower House lawmaker Daw Khin Saw Wai said that she was initially informed by a villager over the phone on Saturday. Considering how serious the allegations were, she asked regional lawmaker U Than Naing to get firsthand accounts from the victims on Sunday morning. U Than Naing then went to the village to confirm the incident.
“Firstly, I thought it’s hard to believe because we never expect such kind of treatment from the army,” said Daw Khin Saw Wai.
U Than Naing posted on social media on Sunday stating that he found only 10 homes in the village spared of bullets out of a total 84 homes. Some homes were struck by artillery fire and had bullet holes. He wrote that a seven-year-old child had been wounded by an artillery explosion near his home and had to be immediately transported to Sittwe General Hospital for medical treatment. Another two women from Tha Mee Hla were also wounded by artillery shells.
As of Monday evening the wounded child was being transported to Yangon for treatment at Yangon General Hospital.
U Than Naing reiterated the ordeals of the villagers, explaining that military troops had looted their gold, jewelry and other belongings. Tha Mee Hla villager Daw Aung Win told him that army soldiers looted about 0.22 pounds of jewelry while the entire population of the village were held at the local school building without food or water from Saturday morning until the evening.
As soon as he heard the villagers’ reports, he made a number of attempts to call Rakhine State Border Affairs Minister Col. Htein Lin and the National League for Democracy (NLD)-appointed Chief Minister of Rakhine State U Nyi Pu on Sunday but his attempts were ignored.
U Than Naing said that he could understand the battles between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar Military in northern Rakhine but that “they should not have cruelly looted the savings of 64 homes.”
When The Irrawaddy attempted to contact Rakhine State’s Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint on Monday the calls went unanswered.
Both Daw Khin Saw Wai and U Than Naing told The Irrawaddy that they will officially lodge complaints with evidence to the relevant authorities, including the commander-in-chief’s office. Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief office’s spokesperson Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun has denied the allegations, saying there was no raid by the military on the ground.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy’s Sittwe correspondent, U Than Naing criticized the official military response, saying “their responses are incorrect. They should not deny on this. Denial is their normal reaction. It truly happened there and I even posted some pictures of the incident.”
He said that he was currently traveling from Rathedaung to Sittwe in order to relate the incident to his party headquarters and will officially complain through the party to the higher authorities. He claims there hadn’t even been any serious fighting between government troops and the AA rebels near Tha Mee Hla village.
The soldiers raided and shot into the village after the column was attacked with a series of remotely detonated mines. He was told that some army soldiers could have been wounded but he was unable to independently identify the casualties.
U Than Naing explained that the army column confiscated about 60 mobile phones from the villagers and returned only 16 devices as of Sunday. Daw Khin Saw Wai said the villagers later identified the army column as the 99th Light Infantry Division.
On its official Facebook page, pro-military organization Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, headed by Naing Swe Oo, a former military medical doctor, accused the villagers of detonating five remotely controlled mines on a military column while soldiers were conducting clearance operations near the village. He said there were no casualties in the army column.
He claimed that as the incident occurred close to the village, the army did not make counter attacks and a border police unit entered the village and arrested some suspicious villagers there. He acknowledged that border police confiscated some mobile phones without elaborating on the number and went on to accuse villagers of leaking information to the AA rebels. He bluntly denied that soldiers looted any of the villagers’ belongings.
He said, “Acting as informants of the insurgents is violating existing laws and action could be taken.”
Some Arakanese have been using Facebook to criticize the actions of the military soldiers: “Are they fighting or robbing there?” one person has commented.
The AA issued battle updates in their website on Sunday which confirmed the clash near Tha Mee Hla Village in Rathedaung Township and it accused government troops of committing rights violations against civilians. It says soldiers detained the villagers at the school and beat up some of the men. Two villagers were arrested but set free on later Saturday evening.
The AA says they have already documented rights abuses committed by military troops in northern Rakhine State and will officially lodge complaints to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in April.