UN warns of ‘intensified fighting’ in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

Updated 29 Jun 2020

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People who fled from Rathedaung Township arrive in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.—Reuters
People who fled from Rathedaung Township arrive in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state.—Reuters

YANGON: The United Nations called for “urgent measures to spare civilians” in Myanmar’s conflict-wracked northwest on Sunday, saying fighting has intensified between the army and insurgents.

The military has been battling the Arakan Army (AA) — a rebel group seeking more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine Buddhists — in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states since January last year.

Scores of civilians have been killed in the area and tens of thousands displaced. The two sides have traded allegations of abuse.

Under lockdown and with an internet blackout across much of the conflict zone, reporting from the area is difficult to verify.

The UN expressed concern Sunday over “reports of intensified fighting” in northwest Rakhine state’s Rathedaung township.

The area is home to more than 10,000 civilians, and local sources report they are either fleeing or are trapped by the ongoing conflict, the UN said.

Urging both parties to “take urgent measures to spare civilians”, the UN also called for them to respect international humanitarian law as well as reiterating the need for a ceasefire with the ongoing global pandemic. The statement comes after local authorities issued a call last week to residents of more than 40 villages to evacuate ahead of “clearance operations”.

The term was used in 2017 before the army waged a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim population.

More than 750,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, carrying accounts of violence that has led to charges of genocide against Myanmar at the UN’s top court.

But Border Affairs Minister Colonel Min Than said the order was “revoked” because the army was only targeting five villages, including Kyauk Tan, to flush out AA insurgents.

“It’s not a ‘clearance operation’, but a ‘military operation,’” Min Than said. The wording changes little for local residents however.

Khaing Kyaw of Kyauk Tan village said his family had to flee their homes.

“Artillery shells are fired from the town and the creeks to our village,” he said.

“We are all running and having difficulties with food.”Thousands of villagers have fled their homes in Myanmars Rakhine state after a local administrator warned dozens of village leaders that the army planned clearance operations against insurgents, a lawmaker and a humanitarian group said.

But a government spokesman said late on Saturday an evacuation order issued by border-affairs officials had been revoked. Border affairs acknowledged issuing the order through the local administrator but said it affected fewer villages.

The warning to the village leaders came in a letter written on Wednesday, which was seen by Reuters and verified by a state government minister, Colonel Min Than.

The letter, signed by the administrator of Rathedaung township, Aung Myint Thein, told village leaders he had been informed the operations were planned in the township’s Kyauktan village and nearby areas suspected of harbouring insurgents.

The letter does not specify where the order came from, but Min Than, Rakhine states border affairs and security minister, said it was an instruction from his border affairs ministry, one of three Myanmar government ministries controlled by the army.

Clearance operation will be done by forces in those villages, the letter from the administrator said.

While this is being done, if the fighting occurs with AA terrorists, don’t stay at the villages but move out temporarily, it said, referring to the Arakan Army, the name of the Rakhine state insurgents.

Min Than said the clearance operation described in the letter referred to military operations targeting terrorists.

He said the administrator had misinterpreted the order from his ministry and that the operations would only take place in a few villages, not the dozens mentioned, but confirmed other details.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2020