Myanmar’s Rakhine state government has banned state employees from collecting donations to help thousands of residents displaced by hostilities between national forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), fearing that the funds are being diverted to the ethnic fighters, according to an internal memo issued by the state’s education department.
The memo dated April 5 instructed education department employees to refrain from gathering donations for internally displaced persons (IDPs), citing concerns that some of the money is being passed on to the AA to assist the ethnic army in its battle for greater autonomy in Rakhine state.
When contacted by RFA’s Myanmar Service, state education official Aung Than Myint confirmed the news and said he issued the departmental circular per the state government’s instructions.
Police in Rakhine have also been stopping local NGOs from collecting money in some areas of the state, much to the indignation of local residents who want to provide humanitarian aid to some of the estimated 31,000 people who have fled their homes due to the armed conflict.
Government officials have not permitted many international and domestic relief groups to operate in the state, except for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Programme.
In a statement issued on April 6, the Representative Committee of Civil Society Organizations in Sittwe, Rakhine state's capital, condemned the actions of police officers who stopped a civil society group from collecting donations there.
“Because they are afraid the money will go to the AA, people who really are suffering will not get any support or donations from CSOs,” Thar Pwint, the group's chairman.
“It’s not good,” he said. “They [the authorities] should use some other way to stop money from going to the AA.”
Letters of instruction
On the same day that Thar Pwint’s group issued its statement, Sittwe’s Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity sent letters to township police and village administrators, ordering them not to collect any donations without permission from the state government.
The letters instructed police authorities and village officials to take action against those who collect funds for the IDPs without permission.
When RFA contacted several village heads, they hesitated to confirm that they had received the letters.
“We have heard that some people were collecting donations in some government departments to support the AA,” said a state government official who declined to give his name.
“The state government is just trying to contain the situation because of this rumor,” he said.
A man helping the IDPs, who asked that his name be withheld, said the influx of villagers who have fled their communities and have sought shelter in other villages has created food and water shortages.
“Some villages have only 100 households, but about 300 households have come to their villages [for shelter], and they have to share food for the 100 households with another 300 households,” he said. “This will be a problem in the long run. The host households have to take care of the IDPs who can’t work.”
Khine Maung Gyi of Sittwe's Organizing Committee for All-Arakan Solidarity, said that because authorities believe money collected is going to the AA, they should come up with a more specific plan to stop it from reaching the rebel soldiers.
“As the situation is bad enough with the IDP problem in Rakhine, it will get worse with other problems arising because of what they have now done,” he said.
“People are moving around, and they can encounter difficulties and problems anytime, anywhere, because of the weather and the fighting,” he said. “People should have the right to help IDPs in their own way.”
Supplies for IDPs
Ye Min Oo from Rakhine state’s Disaster Management Department noted that the state government has supplied IDPs with rice and other humanitarian aid now worth 500 million kyats (U.S. $329,300).
On Thursday, members of the Rakhine State Peace and Stability Supporting Committee visited Kyauktaw township, one of the areas affected by the fighting, where panel chairman Aye Thar Aung and vice chairman Pe Myint provided supplies to IDPs.
The committee, formed by President Win Myint in March to prevent provocations that could cause further instability in the violence-ridden state, this week began conducting field studies on peace and stability in Rakhine, consulting with stakeholders, and offering suggestions on short-term and long-term projects to bring stability to the state.
In addition to the thousands of displaced people in Rakhine, the fighting has resulted in 43 deaths and 69 injuries among civilians, according to a list issued by the Disaster Management Department,
In a related development, AA leader Major General Tun Myat Naing said Thursday that the ethnic military would release the family members of police officers it had detained a day earlier following a clash in Mrauk-U township.
About 200 AA soldiers attacked the compound, taking four women and three children from the residential quarters with them when they later retreated, with the wife of one police official shot dead by ethnic forces, a report in the official Global New Light of Myanmar said.
Two policemen were killed and seven others were reported missing during the fighting, it said.
Tun Myat Naing said in the online journal The Irrawaddy that the AA did not abduct the people, but rather led them to safety, fearing they might be killed as Myanmar military planes bombed the area.
The Myanmar Police Force said the AA abducted seven people and that the wife of one officer was killed during the attack.
The AA will hand the women and children over either to the government or to a local ethnic Rakhine women’s group, Tun Myat Naing told the journal.
The AA and Myanmar Army reported casualties on both sides.
Following the deadly attack on the police compound, government soldiers and the AA took their battle to a village north of Mrauk-U township where Myanmar troops later detained nearly 30 residents, villagers said Thursday.
Fighting ensued in Lekkar village on Wednesday afternoon after the AA had attacked the police compound and retreated, they said. Both sides confirmed the fighting in the village but did not provide details.
Myanmar villagers told RFA Thursday that a military column had entered the village and apprehended 27 locals the troops believed to be connected to the AA, but that they had no ties to the ethnic army.
“Nineteen people from our village [were taken],” said Thein Yee, whose husband Khin Maung Saw is among those being detained.”
The other eight are from different villages, residents said.
“Some people such as carpenters who were here to build houses were also in the village,” Thein Yee told RFA. “A tenth-grader was also taken.”
“They have nothing to do with the AA,” she added. “We can surely guarantee that. All of our village elders can guarantee that. They have nothing to do with the AA. We have to make a living working odd jobs.”
Thein Yee also said that Khin Maung Saw had been with her throughout the clash when the pair took refuge in a village monastery.
Lone Lone, the aunt of detained tenth-grader Soe Moe Kyaw, said that the boy from Pyine-cha village had come to Lekkar village to attend school.
“He went to Pyine-cha for a brief visit, and then came back here with me,” she said. “We were hiding in bomb shelters when soldiers came to the village.”
Myanmar Army soldiers called for Soe Moe Kyaw to come out and ordered him to take off his shirt, she said.
“He was left under the burning sun, and we were too scared to say anything,” Lone Lone said. “We dared not even look at them. My nephew didn’t understand the situation, because he is just a tenth-grader.”
35 names on a list
Villagers and AA spokesman Khine Thukha said the people that the military took away were not AA members.
But Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun of the Myanmar military’s information team insisted that the civilians have ties to the Arakan force.
“They are members of the AA, according to our investigation,” he said. “We’ll release information later.”
A statement issued Wednesday by the Myanmar military said it had apprehended 23 members of the AA disguised as local residents who had escaped into the village.
When RFA asked Zaw Min Tun about the difference in the figures, he said the number varied based on the situation on the ground.
When the military column raided the community, it found a handwritten list of people whom it questioned, and later took way some of those whose names appeared on it, villagers said.
They insisted that the list did not belong to the AA, and instead contained the names of members of local welfare groups.
A local government employee speaking on condition of anonymity told RFA that the list contained the names of members of a sentry group set up to protect the village during the fighting and to prevent thieves from stealing cattle.
“We have about four or five groups to protect the village in south, north, east, and west locations,” he said. “The group in question was from the west.”
“The names of 35 people were on the list,” he said. “Some are at IDP camps, and some are in the village. The troops called out these people and accused them of having contact with AA. They said it openly in front of us.”
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the army is conducting necessary investigations of the detained villagers.
“The truth will come out later,” he said. “That’s all I can say for now. I think the police will release their findings on the investigation later.”
Reported by Thiri Min Zin and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.