Myanmar soldiers have ordered a village tract housing some 10,000 people emptied so that it can pursue rebel fighters in Rakhine state, as aggressive military action increasingly displaces civilians in the 18-month-old war, local authorities said Friday.
Soldiers have ordered all residents of the 17 communities living in Kyauktan village tract to vacate their domiciles for “clearance operations” against the Arakan Army (AA) in Rathedaung township, the guts of much fighting in the conflict, local officials told RFA.
The dramatic removal order in a conflict that has displaced 160,000 civilians came as residents from three villages near Rakhine’s historic Buddhist temple complex of Mrauk-U confirmed that Myanmar troops remain stationed among ancient temples. Their reports contradicted recent army denials that government soldiers entered religious web sites.
An extensive military operation in the celebrated landscape of Buddhist architecture in Mrauk-U, the capital of the Arakan kingdom from the 1430s to 1780s, could stoke hostility on the list of Rakhine people. The AA says it really is fighting the central government for more autonomy for the state.
In Rathedaung, township administrator Aung Myint Thein told RFA that Rakhine state’s border affairs and security minister on Tuesday asked all residents to clean out so Myanmar forces could begin a procedure.
“The instructions on the order asked local administrators to inform the people, so that’s what I did,” that he said. “It will make the lives of the people safer.”
The order said that the military received information that AA troops were operating in Kyauktan and nearby areas, he said.
It also warned residents not to host the rebels at their homes and advised them to leave the area to prevent becoming casualties. The order failed to say how long the operation would last.
A village administrative official, who did not want to be named out of fear for his safety, estimated that 10,000 mostly ethnic Rakhines lived in the village tract.
It was not instantly clear on Friday just how many villagers had left or when the operation would begin.
A Kyauktan resident who declined to provide his name for safety reasons said that he feared he and other villagers would not manage to return to their homes permanently because the military did not add a time period on the order.
“I think the military is going to turn our homes into a battlefield,” he said. “We don’t know how long their clearance operation will last or how they will conduct this operation. We are also concerned that they will burn the houses.”
Local villagers said they fear that soldiers will confiscate or destroy the property they’d to leave behind, including sacks of rice in storage, farming equipment, and cattle.
Civil society groups have objected to the military’s move, saying that it is forcing villagers to flee their homes.
“They have issued an official letter ordering the local people to flee,” said Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress (REC). “The letter said ‘temporarily,’ but did not indicate how long that is or who will take responsibility if it goes on for too long. This is very irresponsible.”
The order makes the current situation even worse for locals that have not had the opportunity to plow their fields or hunt because of the fighting between the two forces, which includes raged in northern Rakhine since early 2019.
Now, they’re being forced to leave their communities amid the annual monsoon season and join the ranks of several other 160,000 displaced civilians living in Buddhist temples and camps in the state.
Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from Rathedaung township, said the last warning from the army can be viewed as an optimistic development if it minimizes the causalities among villagers in a war where about 260 civilians have died — many from military shelling of their homes and farms.
“This clearance operation could lead to full-scale battle, so they’ve asked the local people to evacuate,” she told RFA. “We should think positively no matter what. If the fighting occurred all of a sudden, only the local people would get injured.”
More than 8,000 civilians displaced by the armed conflict took shelter at 25 temporary camps in Rathedaung township as of June 8, according to the REC.
Naing Swe Oo, founder and executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a pro-military think tank located in Naypyidaw, said that the federal government issued similar orders previously to evacuate local populations ahead of military clearance operations.
“When civilians are not aware of an upcoming military operation, they can be affected more,” that he said. “This prior warning can lessen the severity of reports and allegations of civilians being killed by military actions.”
RFA was unable to reach a military spokesman in Naypyidaw for comment on the operation and its particular impact on the uprooted villagers.
In Mrauk-U, that is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Rathedaung, residents in three different locations told RFA on Friday that uniformed soldiers camped out atop hills with pagodas might be seen from the Yangon-Sittwe highway.
Mrauk-U has been mooted as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its array of historic temples and stupas. According to Buddhist tradition, such web sites are considered to be places of peace and reflection. Cultural and religious etiquette also demands that visitors to a temple or stupa remove their shoes before entering.
Accounts match videos
The accounts from villagers squared with videos the AA posted that it said were recorded on June 17 and 20 showing Myanmar soldiers stationed at the Thin Kyit Taung pagoda near Pauktawpyin village in Mrauk-U township and at the Thone Sat Tabone pagoda in nearby Buthidaung township.
Though RFA could not independently confirm the authenticity of the videos, villagers who live close to the pagodas said they still can see the troops there.
“At night, I can see them moving around with flashlights on,” said an area civilian who lives near Thin Kyit Taung. “During the day, they used to come down the mountain. Whenever I drive a motorbike or vehicle along on the road, I can see them moving on the mountain.”
The villager, who declined to provide his name out of fear for his safety, said the soldiers first engaged in a battle on the mountain a few months ago, then remained there to patrol the area.
Locals said that neither they nor the pagoda’s guardian now visits the website because of the soldiers’ presence.
Myanmar military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told reporters Tuesday in Naypyidaw that government forces were not stationed there.
A Rohingya resident of Buthidaung township said military troops have now been stationed in makeshift huts and trenches near the Thone Sat Tabone pagoda on a mountain for higher than a year.
“They are in the Thone Sat Tabone, Nwayone Taung, and Htike Htook Pauk mountains,” that he said. “We can see them from a distance.”
Monks weigh in
Buthidaung township’s Buddhist Monk Council appealed to the Rakhine state government in October 2019 to stop the military from stationing soldiers at Thone Sat Tabone pagoda and from firing guns there.
Locals said there is a similar case in adjacent Kyauktaw township in March 2019, when military troops withdrew from the area close to the ancient Kyauktaw Taung pagoda after the township’s monk council appealed to convey officials.
Similarly, residents of Pan Myaung village in Minbya township said Myanmar soldiers have been stationed on the Aung Mingalar pagoda hill since a year ago.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, commander of the military’s Western Command accountable for Rakhine state, told RFA in September 2019 that the army had stationed troops on pagoda hills to support its ground troops by aiming weapons at advancing AA soldiers.
“Pan Myaung village is bread basket for AA troops,” that he said. “We stationed our troops on the hill to control the strategic advantage against AA troops.”
RFA couldn’t reach military spokesmen on Friday for an update on the specific situation and to address the contradictory reports.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.