Families of villagers from Rakhine state held by the Myanmar military since March for suspected ties to the rebel Arakan Army on Monday demanded the release of the men, telling reporters that some detained civilians are being forced to perform hard labor for the army.
The 18 captives — residents of strife-torn Kyauktaw township — were arrested in mid-March, when Myanmar soldiers entered the region amid fighting and burned down dozens of homes in the 500-home ethnic Rakhine village tract.
Relatives if 18 detainees told a news conference in the Rakhine capital Sittwe that about 10 of the captives from Tin Ma village tract are being forced to perform hard labor in a military battalion.
Oo Than Yee, wife of a Tin Ma village tract administrator, said she confirmed that her son Nay Lin Oo is among the detainees when she sneaked into the Taung Shay mountain area near Tin Ma Gyi village. Her son, who has hearing and speech impairments, was working in a military camp with others.
“I recognized my son there,” she said. “I saw other villagers, too. They were forced to work. Some were shoveling dirt, and others were carrying bags of soil on their shoulders.”
Win May Oo, wife of detained villager Maung Kyi Linn, appealed to the authorities to release her husband, who is the family’s breadwinner.
“I rely on my husband’s earnings. I don’t have a job. I am gravely concerned about his safety,” she said.
Aye Yee, mother of 14-year-old Tun Tun Wai who is being detained, said she filed a complaint with police and education officials, but nothing has been done to help free her son.
“I have reported it to the education officials, but they said they don’t have any ‘weapons’ to take on a fight,” she told RFA. “They said the authorities who detained the villagers are too powerful to touch.”
The police also said they can do nothing but will inform us when the military has transferred the detainees to them, she added.
Ma Hla Aye, wife of one of the detained residents from Tin Ma Thit village, said she does not want to see others like her husband detained.
“We’ve got three children. Every day they ask when their dad will be home. I’ve got no answers,” she said.
“I want to appeal to the authorities not to treat Rakhine civilians cruelly,” she added.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun was not available Monday for comment on the 18 detained villagers.
When RFA asked him about the fate of the residents on June 10, he said he did not have specific information on the case but would review the status of the detained men.
No martial law in Rakhine
Despite ongoing fighting and an increasing number of civilians caught up in the hostilities, Myint Than, director general of the General Administration Department in Naypyidaw, told RFA Monday that the situation in northern Rakhine is not severe enough for the state to be placed under martial law.
“People are talking about martial law out of fear based on the resignation of 51 village administrators last week,” he said, referring to dozens of local officials in Myebon township, one of several areas in northern Rakhine hit by heavy fighting.
The village and ward administrators filed resignation letters on June 5, fearing arbitrary arrest by the Myanmar military after the recent detention of three of their colleagues on terrorism charges.
“The Rakhine state government is working on getting peace and having a smooth administration in the region,” Myint Than said.
RFA could not reach Major General Tun Tun Nyi, vice chairman of the military’s True News Information Team, for comment.
Myint Than’s comments came after political analysts predicted that the 18-month-old war between the government military and the AA would spread to urban areas following a knife attack on a military officer and the abduction of his colleague by assailants believed to be Arakan fighters in a Ponnagyun town market on June 11.
The atmosphere of lawlessness hit home again when four unknown men robbed a Kanbawza Bank branch in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe on June 10, with the government military and AA blaming the other side for the theft.
In another brazen daytime attack, a police officer was stabbed to death by two people on motorcycles in downtown Kyauktaw on June 13, striking fear in local residents who remained indoors, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Clashes continue in rural areas of Rakhine as well, with fighting in Ann township on June 13 forcing about 100 predominantly ethnic Chin residents from Mingaladon village to flee to Myatheintan monastery in Dalet Chaung Anauk village.
Villager Maung Pe said the residents left Mingaladon because they faced a food shortage with land and water routes blocked by Myanmar forces preventing them from getting to markets.
“[We] can’t go anywhere, [and] we have no food to eat, so we came to this monastery because of a lack of food and because we faced bombs and bullets,” he told RFA.
Rule of law in Rakhine in under stress where fighting is taking place, said Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from Rathedaung township about the recent incidents.
“The current government and security officials have also been weak on controlling the situation in Rakhine,” she said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha noted that Rakhine had been under martial law in the past and that it is under a military administration now.
“The military has forced the government to run an official military administration in Rakhine in order to cover up its actions in this region,” he said. “We will have peace in Rakhine only if Rakhine people can govern it.”
The AA, branded an outlawed organization and terrorist group by the Myanmar government, demanded on May 29 that all government administrative offices and the military immediately leave Rakhine state, where the predominantly Buddhist force seeks greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people.
The fighting, most of which has taken place near villages outside urban areas, left 260 civilians dead and injured about 570 others during the period from December 2018 to June 11 of this year, according to figures compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The armed conflict also has displaced more than 160,000 civilians, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Mying Maung, Khet Mar, and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.