Two shooting incidents in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have killed five members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, including two children slain in a firefight between rebels and government troops patrolling behind civilians forced to walk through mined territory, residents said Tuesday.
In an account from Buthidaung township that was disputed by the Myanmar military, an army column had conscripted 15 civilians to guide soldiers through terrain believed to be mined by the rebel Arakan Army (AA). The two young cattle herders were killed Monday when the column was ambushed by AA troops, the villagers said.
Later on Monday in the seat of Rakhine’s Minbya township, three Rohingya men were shot dead by government soldiers who fired on their boat from a bridge above a river next to the historic town market, residents said.
The five dead Rohingyas are the latest casualties in a war in the northern half of Rakhine state that has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured 657 others since December 2018, according to an RFA tally.
Another 220,000 civilians have been displaced by the government’s conflict with the ethnic Rakhine AA, which erupted a year after a scorched-earth military crackdown drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims from the same region to Bangladesh in response to militant attacks on Myanmar police and army posts that killed nine.
Monday’s killings brought fresh reiterations of a longstanding charge that the Myanmar military conscripts civilians as human shields in its combat with ethnic armies.
“They had taken a total of 15 villagers to use as local guides,” said a resident of Pyin Shae village in Rakhine’s Buthidaung township, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
The conscripted group of Rohingya included children who were herding cattle and an elderly man, the resident said.
“The fighting erupted on the way,” the resident said. “Two were killed, and one got injured and is in the hospital.”
“I heard the military had taken children who were herding cattle and got into the combat on the way,” said Aung Thaung Shwe, a lawmaker from Buthidaung township. “The combat left two people dead, and another person was sent to Buthidaung Hospital.”
The other dozen villagers escaped during the skirmish and returned to the community at about 8 p.m., residents said.
Military denies clash
Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun denied that shooting by government soldiers killed the two children and wounded the adult, instead blaming the AA for firing on the civilians.
He said that government soldiers heard light artillery blasts northeast of Pyin Shae village and went there to investigate. They discovered the bodies of two Rohingya villagers and a third person who was still alive but unconscious.
The dead boys were returned to their village, while the injured man was taken to a military hospital in Buthidaung township, the spokesman said.
The villagers said that residents who followed the military column collected the bodies of the two dead children and took the injured 32-year-old man back to their community.
“It is not true that there was any combat with military,” Zaw Min Tun told RFA Tuesday.
“Our troops went there after they heard the blast. They [the AA] must have tried to kill all three of them,” he said, who added that he was told that AA soldiers fired on the villagers as they were herding cattle in the area.
“We are still investigating,” said Zaw Min Tun when asked why the military’s account contradicted that of the villagers who said government forces were responsible for the deaths.
“We have arrested three people who are not Bengalis for interrogation,” he added, using a derogatory name for the Rohingya that implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA that soldiers in the area said the shooting erupted as the military troops rounded up Pyin Shae villagers as forced laborers, though he could not confirm whether a clash with Myanmar troops had taken place.
Khine Thukha accused the military of trying to cover up the atrocity by fabricating a story that the civilians had been injured and killed by AA troops.
‘This is totally wrong’
Myanmar’s government army has long been accused by human rights groups and ethnic armies of using local civilians as forced porters and human shields.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of the human rights group Equality Myanmar, said that Myanmar’s Child Rights Law prohibits the violation of children’s rights during armed conflict and makes it illegal for soldiers to use minors as forced laborers.
“This is totally wrong, especially as armed groups are supposed to protect children during armed conflict,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Instead, they are now using them in combat and getting them killed.”
The three Rohingya men shot dead by soldiers on a bridge above them in central Minbya late Monday night were identified by residents as Nu Mahmad, 40; Noru Salam, 50; and Mar Dawlar, 45, from Latma village.
“They fired the guns from the bridge, yelling, ‘Shoot them, shoot them,’” said a local senior citizen who requested anonymity for safety reasons. “Three Muslims were killed.”
The three Rohingya men were rowing their boat in the morning in a creek near Myo Ma market, when the Myanmar soldiers fired, the resident said.
“We don’t know why they shot at them,” he added.
Many local residents who live in the area said they heard the gunshots.
Some senior citizens of the town said authorities arrested three people — Maung Gyi, 29; Maung Maung Oo, 41; and Kyaw Min Soe, 25 — after the shooting.
‘More and more of these incidents’
A statement issued Tuesday by the Myanmar military said a combined team of soldiers and police officers saw two motorboats traveling along the creek around 10:45 p.m. during a nighttime curfew in northern Rakhine townships — a direct contradiction of the accounts given by residents who said the shooting occurred around 10 a.m.
Those who break the curfew that has been in place since April 2019 in Minbya, Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, and Mrauk-U townships are subject to arrest or worse if they are detected by security personnel.
The security forces ordered the men in the boats to stop for questioning, but they tried to flee. Warning shots were fired into the air, but when the vessels continued going, the soldiers and police fired directly at trio, according to the statement.
Authorities seized bodies of the three Rohingya along with two machetes, slingshots, and cell phones from their boats, and are now investigating whether the trio had connections to insurgent groups. Their bodies were taken to the mortuary after they were found, the statement said.
Myat Tun, director of the Arakan Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group, who checked the bodies Tuesday morning, said that the bullets had penetrated the men’s backs.
“This is not acceptable,” he told RFA. “If they didn’t stop their boats as the security forces ordered, then they should have tried other ways to stop them.”
“We now are seeing more and more of these incidents,” he added. “The security forces are committing war crimes.”
Maung Than Hlaing, the administrator of Latma village, told RFA that the three slain men from his community, whose bodies were transferred to their families by Minbya town police, had no connections to any rebel army.
Maung Thein Hlaing, the administrator of Latma village, said the police contacted him at about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday to verify the identities of the men.
“All three villagers were day laborers,” he said. “They made a living by doing odd jobs. They were not associated with any armed groups.”
Reported and edited by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.