UPDATED at 2:44 P.M. ET on 2020-02-11
More than 1,100 residents from 20 villages in Myanmar’s war-torn northern Rakhine state have fled a surge in fighting between government troops and the rebel Arakan Army, a local administrator and a lawmaker said Monday.
The new wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) comes amid the daily shelling of communities and the restoration of an internet service ban in five townships where the armed conflict has intensified during the past year and the population of displaced has swelled past 100,000 people.
“So far, we’ve got over 1,100 IDPs,” said Nyi Nyi, administrator of Buthidaung’s Thaykan Kwasone village, adding that the fleeing villagers arrived on Feb. 5-9, a day after the Myanmar Army, Navy, and Air Force launched clearance operations in the area.
“The Social Welfare Ministry is providing assistance for 600 IDPs, though we have requested more,” he said. “The [displaced] have been divided up between the monastery and a village. We’re building temporary camps for those who exceed the capacity of the monastery.”
The IDPs are from Konedan, Kularchaung, Zeyarmyaing, Oophauk, Thameehla Ywathit, Thameehla Ywa Haung, and Ohnchaung villages in Rathedaung township and from Kyaukpyin Seik and Seikkhu villages in Buthidaung township.
The ministry is providing 3.5 pyi of rice, a measurement unit equal to 2.7 U.S. quarts, per person per month, and officials are collecting donations to build enough temporary camps for the IDPs, Nyi Nyi said.
Aung Thaung Shwe, an ethnic Rakhine lawmaker who represents Buthidaung township in Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, said the villagers fled because of constant firing of heavy artillery by both the Myanmar Air Force and Navy.
Clashes that have occurred in more than 10 villages in the area have prompted residents to leave since last year, with some seeking safety in nearby villages, he said.
“The military has been conducting clearance operations,” Aung Thaung Shwe said. “They fled when shells exploded in their villages. When the military stop firing the shells, they went back to the village.”
“Now, internet services are shut down, and the military is firing from both air and navy vessels, so they were terrified and fled,” he added.
On Feb. 3, the government reimposed an internet shutdown in four northern Rakhine townships, including Rathedaung and Buthidaung, and in Paletwa township of neighboring Chin state, after partially lifting the block five months ago.
The move came amid escalated hostilities between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group that seeks greater autonomy in the region, which have left dozens of civilians dead and driven about 106,000 from their homes as of January, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a relief group tallying the number of IDPs.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said that armed assaults by Myanmar forces are not in response to clashes, but are based on an assumption that villagers are harboring AA troops in communities along the Mayu River.
“They are destroying villages along the Mayu River in Buthidaung and Rathedaung. They are using the four-cuts strategy in their operations,” he said in a reference to the Myanmar military’s counterinsurgency tactic designed to deny armed opposition groups access to food, money, information, and recruits.
“They assume that when the villagers flee, AA soldiers cannot get food supplies, so they cannot live in the villages,” he said.
Khine Thukha pointed to reports that Myanmar soldiers had burned harvested rice paddies in the Mahnyin Taung area, with some damage caused by helicopter fire.
Colonel Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the Myanmar’s military’s Western Command responsible for Rakhine state, said that government soldiers are conducting clearance operations in Rathedaung and Buthidaung and that villagers should not provide support to the AA.
“If these villages harbor AA troops, they will be caught in the battles,” he said.
The latest clash occurred at about 10 a.m. local time Monday along the border of Buthidaung and Rathedaung in an area where AA troops are active and have been attacking vessels in the Mayu River, Win Zaw Oo said.
“We’re conducting the clearance operations in response to them,” he said.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.