Myanmar soldiers and rebel Arakan Army troops exchanged fire for four hours Monday morning near Ohn Chaung village in restive Rakhine state’s Rathedaung township, with soldiers returning with border guards later in the day to search and loot homes, residents said.
Fighting between the two forces intensified in northern Rakhine following deadly coordinated attacks by Arakan fighters on police outposts in neighboring Buthidaung township on Jan. 4, though it remains unclear what prompted the skirmish in Ohn Chaung village, they said.
“We didn’t even have our breakfast when the fighting started,” said a resident who declined to be named out of fear for his safety, adding that government troops began shooting into the village at 8 a.m. with small and heavy weapons.
“We are in big trouble,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We don’t know why they were shooting like that. Some villagers have fled. Those who live near the creek fled by boats to the other side, but we were not able to flee.”
In the evening, military and Border Guard Police (BGP) officers searched houses in the village and took residents’ jewelry, money, and mobile phones, the villager said.
Those who sought safety in nearby villages are afraid of returning home because the military and BGP are still conducting searches of the roughly 80 houses in the community, he said.
“Locals said the military unit stationed near Thamee Hla village went to the conflict area to help their comrades,” said Tin Maung Win, a lawmaker who represents the Ratheduang constituency in the regional parliament and is currently visiting the township.
“People are frightened,” he said. “They are worried with thoughts of what could happen to them when the government army comes to their village again.”
Thamee Hla village raid
Myanmar soldiers raided Thamee Hla village on Saturday, looting gold, jewelry, cash, and mobile phones from villagers, ethnic Rakhine lawmakers told the online journal The Irrawaddy.
Regional lawmaker Than Naing, who visited the village to talk to residents, said on social media that only 10 of the community’s 84 homes had not been hit by artillery fire, The Irrawaddy said.
Two women from Thamee Hla were also wounded by artillery shells, and a seven-year old child was injured by artillery explosion near his home.
The boy was sent to Sittwe General Hospital, but had to be transferred to the medical facility in the commercial city Yangon because his condition had not improved, locals told RFA.
It was later reported on social media that the boy had succumbed to his injuries, though RFA could not confirm this.
Thamee Hla villager Aung Win told Than Naing that army soldiers took about a quarter pound of jewelry while holding all residents inside a school building without food or water from Saturday morning until Monday evening, The Irrawaddy said.
Than Naing and another lawmaker said they would file complaints with evidence with relevant authorities, including the office of Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun denied that the raid took place, it said
After a mine exploded and hit a military column near Thamee Hla in north Rathedaung on Jan. 26, the government army began clearance operations in the village, injuring villagers in the process, residents said.
Three men were treated at Rathedaung Hospital on Sunday because of the injuries caused by government soldiers, they said.
“Government troops came into the village shooting at random,” said Maung Win Hlaing, who sustained a head injuring from beatings by soldiers. “They called us to come out of our houses, and then beat us. They kicked our heads and foreheads, and we got injuries from the kickings.”
“They later untied us around 4 p.m. and brought us to where other villagers were gathered,” he said. “We could go back home around 7 p.m.”
The Arakan Army (AA) confirmed the clash near Thamee Hla village on its website and accused government troops of committing rights violations against civilians, including detaining villagers at the school, beating up some of the men, and arresting but later freeing two residents, according to the The Irrawaddy report.
The AA also said it has documented other rights abuses committed by military troops in northern Rakhine and will officially lodge complaints with the International Criminal Court in April, it report said.
When RFA contacted Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun from the Myanmar military’s information team to ask him about hostilities in the two locales, he said he could not confirm Monday’s clash, adding that if government soldiers had committed any human rights violations on Jan. 26, action would be taken against those responsible if there was concrete evidence against them.
“We have our procedures to investigate step by step if we receive a complaint,” he said. “We have to investigate according to military discipline and the administrative system.”
“We will do what we have to do if we receive a report,” he said. “We don’t ignore any complaints from people. We investigate cases whether they are true or not and take action as needed.”
About 13 civilians have been injured in hostilities between government forces and the AA since early January, locals said. The total number of casualties from both sides could not be confirmed.
The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued a statement Monday putting the number of displaced civilians from fighting in Rathedaung, Buthidaung, and Ponnagyun townships at 5,200 as of Jan. 25.
Authorities have blocked travel to some of the conflict areas, preventing humanitarian and development work in the region, the statement said.
The government military in December declared a four-month cease-fire in five of its command zones, except for Rakhine state, in an effort to get armed rebel groups to come to the negotiating table and try to end ongoing hostilities.
The AA is fighting for greater autonomy for Rakhine state.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.