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Intense clashes and airstrikes by government forces in western Myanmar’s Chin state over the weekend killed 21 civilians, injured more than two dozen others, and prompted more than 1,000 villagers to flee their homes, local lawmakers said Monday.

The casualties were reported in four villages Paletwa township, according to the online journal The Irrawaddy, which put the number of those who fled their homes at 2,000 from 10 villages.

The villages — Meiksa Wa Village 2, Meiksa Wa Village 3, Wetma and Pyaing Tain — sit near Meewa hill, where Myanmar forces said they fought back against rebel Arakan Army (AA) soldiers who tried to capture a government military outpost on the hill.

Residents of Wetma along with those from nearby Pharwa and Pyanwa villages fled to the town of Samee, about 20 miles away, by land and water, said Chin state parliamentarian Salai Myo Htike from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Some elderly residents who could not flee on foot are being transported by small motorboats, he said.

“Shelling hit the village yesterday, and people are now too afraid to live in the area,” he said. “Now, people from most villages in the area are fleeing to safe places in the region.”

The lawmaker also said he had asked the state government to provide assistance to the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and that a primary school in Samee has been designated as a safe haven for them.

“We are now making plans to provide food supplies and other assistance to these IDPs. The local people are moving to Samee,” Zo Bwe, chairman of the Chin state parliament, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Paletwa township resident Kyaw Win said that local residents who are day laborers are at a loss now that phone service has gone dead and public transportation has ground to a halt amid the fighting.

“We have to stay at home, and we cannot go out hunting,” he told RFA. “Because we are short on cash, we are eating only rice. Usually for meals, we either buy the meat or get it by hunting. Now, we can’t do either.”

Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) have been engaged in fierce fighting in northern Rakhine state and Chin’s Paletwa township for more than a year, as the mostly ethnic Rakhine army seeks greater autonomy in the region.

Dozens of civilians have died during the uptick in hostilities, which began in late 2018, and about 110,000 have been displaced, according to a local NGO tallying IDP numbers.

Mutual fire

RFA was unable to reach Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun for comment.

But he told The Irrawaddy that it was difficult to determine which side caused the casualties during the AA’s offensive which forced Myanmar soldiers to fire back.

He also cited a statement issued by the military commander-in-chief’s office that said AA insurgents surrounded a Myanmar military outpost on Meewa hill, giving government forces no choice but to fire back.

“Because of the mutual fire, some of the villagers died and [were] injured,” the statement said

AA spokesman Khine Thukha said there had been continued fighting near Pyinetine, Kyauktan, and Monethying Pyin villages which sit between Paletwa and Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township, but that no battles had occurred in Wetma, Pharwa, and Pyanwa villages.

“I conclude that the [Myanmar] military must have specific intentions because it is intentionally attacking the villages from aircraft and forcing the villagers to flee.”

“The military is assuming that AA troops are getting food supplies as long as there are villagers in the village,” he said. “That’s why the military is trying to eliminate them all.”

An AA statement issued Monday said Arakan fighters had clashed with government troops near Meewa for more than 40 days since Feb. 5, according to The Irrawaddy.

The eight Myanmar militiamen captured by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army stand behind arms and bags of drugs seized at their camps in Myanmar's northern Shan state, March 15, 2020.

The eight Myanmar militiamen captured by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army stand behind arms and bags of drugs seized at their camps in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, March 15, 2020.
Credit: RFA video screenshot

Militiamen fire on TNLA

Amid ongoing hostilities in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, the rebel Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) on Sunday captured eight government-backed militiamen with a large amount of narcotic drugs during fighting in Namhkam that killed one person, area residents and a TNLA spokesman said.

The TNLA also seized five militia camps in villages controlled by the Pengsay militia along a roadway connecting Namhkam and Nant Phat Kar, locals told RFA.

TNLA officials said the militiamen began shooting at its soldiers while they conducted a drug-eradication campaign, they said.

“The Pengsay militia and a [Myanmar] light infantry battalion started shooting at us, and we engaged in the battle,” said TNLA spokesman Major Mai Aik Kyaw. “The battle lasted from the morning until 2 p.m. We found a body of a militiaman and arrested eight other militiamen.”

TNLA soldiers also confiscated 778 pounds of raw opium, more than 40,000 tablets, and guns, as well as destroyed about 10 acres of opium plants after the battle, he said.

Local villagers disputed the TNLA’s casualty figure, saying that two fighters were killed.

TNLA troops have attacked militia camps in Manpan, Kyaukkhonetan, Pengsay, and Mengmei villages along the Namhkam-Nant Phat Kar highway. Mostly ethnic Lisu, Palaung and Kholon Lishaw people reside in these villages.

‘Fabricating stories’

An information officer for the Pengsay militia group who gave her name as Thein said  there are no opium plantations in the immediate area, and it is currently not opium-growing season.

“I don’t know when they took these photos,” she told RFA. “It shows a large quantity of drugs in the photo. It’s not possible that the militias have that many drugs at their camps.”

“I think the [TNLA] has taken the photo in their controlled territory using their own drugs, and is trying to make it appear as if it is ours. They have grudge against us,” she added.

Former militiaman Myint Kyaw said he was surprised by the news that the TNLA discovered large quantities of drugs held by local militias.

Local militias “don’t engage in business activities,” he said. “They are fabricating stories that we are involved in activities that we are not involved in.”

The battle on Sunday continued in Manaung and Phadae villages, edging closer to Namhkam town by evening.

Manaung resident Mei Nawrein said Myanmar soldiers and the militiamen searched some homes in Phadae village after the battle.

“They searched two or three houses in the villages,” she said. “The houses were empty. They broke in and stayed there. They searched and then ransacked property in the houses.”

Both the Pengsay and Namhkam Myoma militia groups are active in Namhkam township, where drug abuse is rife among young people, residents said.

“Many young people in the area use drugs,” Myint Kyaw said.” Most users are [ethnic] Palaung people.”

A senior citizen from Namhkam town who declined to be identified out of safety concerns said Shan armed groups have been working on local drug eradication campaigns for a long time, but they have had little success because government forces and the militias they back attack them in an effort to gain control of their territory.

Reported by Phyu Phyu Khine and Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.