Military Using Villagers as Human Shields in N. Rakhine Battles

By Moe Myint 28 December 2018

YANGON—In a joint operation between Myanmar military troops and border police, approximately 100 members carried out thorough household checks across Yae Gaung Chaung Village in northern Rakhine State’s strife-torn Rathedaung Township, forcing the entire population of the village to move to a Buddhist monastery on Thursday following days of clashes between the Arakan Army (AA) and Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) troops.

Yae Gaung Chaung villager Ko Tun Win Naing who managed to escape from the village told The Irrawaddy over the phone that fighting broke out in the mountain range near his village on Wednesday, leading the military to suspect that residents of his village were colluding with the AA. On the same day, a military column from Say Taung Village in Buthidaung marched to Yae Gaung Chaung in order to surround the AA rebels in the densely forested area.  On Thursday morning, they entered the village without forewarning the residents and ordered every villager to leave their home and go to the monastery.

According to Ko Tun Win Naing, while at the monastery, at least one health officer and a woman who had made a trip to Kachin State (where the headquarters of the AA are located), were handcuffed by soldiers. Approximately 30 men and a number of women were questioned at the monastery. As of Thursday evening, the villagers expected the army would remain stationed in Yae Gaung Chaung overnight.

“No one remains in the village—they (the army) contained everyone at the monastery. They even searched the toilets {in the village),” said Ko Tun Win Naing.

Ma Khin Aye Nu was one of a few women who managed to flee to a neighboring village. Over the phone with The Irrawaddy, she explained that she was harvesting paddy in the field when the soldiers came into Yae Gaung Chaung and so she managed to escape. She is concerned about her family, however, as they have been unreachable by phone since the army entered the village on Thursday morning.

Before entering Yae Gaung Chaung, the team of military and border police detained 11 villagers from Say Taung, a neighboring village situated in Buthidaung Township. Ko Kyaw Thein Hlaing, one of the detainees from Say Taung, told The Irrawaddy that he and another 10 villagers were forced to lead the soldiers along the route from his village to Yae Gaung Chaung because army troops had previously been ambushed by the AA in that area. According to him, about five high-ranking army officers wearing border police uniforms ordered two villagers to stay close to each officer as they walked. In some places, the villagers were forced to walk first and then army column followed the villagers.

“It seems [they were] using us as human shields in the battlefield,” said Ko Kyaw Thein Hlaing.

Say Taung village administrator U Maung Thein Nyunt confirmed the dentations at his village on Thursday morning. According to him, army troops experienced three landmine attacks by the AA on Tuesday and some unconfirmed information circulating among villagers claimed that dozens of army soldiers were killed in that attack. Although the villagers could not provide hard evidence, some people speculate that soldiers who entered the forest did not return to the village as of Thursday. Some villagers from Yae Gaung Chaung and nearby Ka Yu Chaung villages saw an army truck come to the area right after the three mine explosions and return quickly to the military command in Yae Gaung Chaung.

When The Irrawaddy phoned Rakhine State’s security and border affairs minister Col. Phone Tint on Thursday afternoon, he declined to comment, saying he was in a cabinet meeting at the time.

AA spokesperson U Khine Thukha said that the AA clashed with military troops in four locations—two in Rathedaung Township and two in Chin State’s Paletwa Township. He confirmed a number of causalities on the military’s side but refused to reveal the death toll from clashes on Tuesday and Wednesday. He said the military randomly fired heavy howitzer artilleries into the forest in Rathedaug Township continuously for five hours.

U Khine Thukha said, “As the army has reinforced the frontline with more troops, fighting will surely intensify and the locations of the skirmishes will broaden.”

The Arakan National Party (ANP) released a statement on Thursday afternoon demanding that the military not block humanitarian workers and the relief efforts of those trying to help the displaced persons on the ground. They also urged them not to threaten or forcefully use villagers on the battlefield. The ANP statement says the Myanmar military’s recent ceasefire announcement on halting military operations in five commands while continuing battles in Rakhine State is contradictory to the all-inclusiveness of Myanmar’s peace process.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced on Thursday afternoon that they were assisting over 1,000 displaced villagers who were affected by the fighting in the area.

On Friday, Rakhine State security and border affairs minister Col. Phone Tint told The Irrawaddy “there was no such thing.”

“The villagers have already arrived back home. We just inquired as we met them in the forest, then we released them. They have already arrived back home. We have asked the [concerned] village administrators [about it].”

When asked by The Irrawaddy if the regional government would ask the military not to force the local villagers to help the army in its military activities in the future, the minister said the military has to respond according to the situation in the conflict zone.

“They (the army) didn’t use the locals. They just questioned them. Today, nobody forced civilians to serve as porters as others accuse. There is no reason to do so and no one will accept it. Once we heard about it we asked the lower levels but nobody does such things in this era,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Friday with comments from Rakhine State’s minister for security and border affairs.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated U Maung Thein Nyunt is the village administrator of Yae Gaung Chaung Village, when, in fact, he is the village administrator of Say Taung Village.