Artillery fire and aerial bombardments by Myanmar forces killed three civilians and burned scores of houses in their communities in mid-March amid fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army in war-ravaged Rakhine state, villagers recounted Monday at a press conference.
They made the comments after traveling from in Kyauktaw township to the state capital Sittwe to give testimony on a series of attacks on civilian dwellings amid a government-imposed internet shutdown in nine townships in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, cutting off vital information about the fighting.
They villagers accused the Myanmar Army of conducting an aerial bombing on civilian communities that destroyed about 150 homes and a monastery in Pyaing Taing village, while government soldiers on the ground torched houses in neighboring Tin Ma village.
Pyaing Taing residents said they believe that Myanmar soldiers intentionally bombed and burned down some houses in their community.
“Three people were killed and ten were injured,” said villager Maung Ba Saw. “They were killed by the heavy artillery blast. We were hurt for no reason. They must be firing from a distance.”
“The aerial bombing burned many houses on March 12 while many villagers were there,” he added. “At least 19 houses were burned down.”
On March 21, Myanmar soldiers also entered Tin Ma village, which has more than 500 houses, and later burned down dozens of homes, they said.
“They had entered the village, searched some houses and taken some property they wanted. That was all,” said Tin Ma resident Zaw Aung.
“But on March 22, they had entered into the village around 11 a.m. and fired their guns indiscriminately in all directions,” he said. “They started burning down the houses around 11:10 a.m.”
Residents fled as soldiers fired their weapons and recorded a video of the village burning from a nearby river bank as evidence, Zaw Aung added.
Six days earlier, Myanmar troops had detained more than 50 Tin Ma residents whom they suspected of having ties to the AA, but later released 40 of them, he said.
The others are still being held, though residents recently found a body that they believe to be one of the detained villagers.
Intense fighting in rural areas of Kyauktaw township since February has killed many civilians in the area, the villagers said without giving a precise figure, and forced scores of others to flee to Kyauktaw town for safety.
RFA’s Myanmar Service could not reach military spokesmen Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun or Colonel Win Zaw Oo, chief of the Western Command, for comment on the press conference.
Minbya village burned
In Rakine’s Minbya township, two civilians were burned alive on March 25 when a Myanmar Army column set fire to 11 homes in Hpa Pyo village near the Ramaung suspension bridge, despite no clashes in the areas, a resident said.
“That night around 10 p.m., soldiers from the military entered the village and burned the houses,” said Hpa Pyi resident Kyaing Thar.
“Two houses were burned down at first,” he said. “After that, they came to burn down more houses. A total of 11 houses were burned down.”
An elderly woman and a middle-aged man, who was decapitated, burned in the blaze, Kyaing Thar said.
“The villagers are too afraid to go back to the village because it still might be dangerous, he added. “There were no battles in the area.”
Hpa Pyo villagers are now taking sanctuary in nearby villages, he said.
RFA could not reach Rakhine state lawmaker Hla Thein Aung from Minbya township to confirm the report.
AA seizes rice bags
The AA on Sunday allegedly seized 120 bags of rice — a staple food in Myanmar — that the Chin state government purchased for displaced ethnic Chin villagers, a local leader said.
The soldiers returned most of the bags in the evening after the media reported the incident, said Kyaw Nyein, chairman of the Khumi Affairs Coordination Council.
“After we informed the media, they returned 100 bags, but kept 20 bags,” he said, adding that the AA agreed to pay 35,000 kyats (U.S. $25) for each bag that they took.
The 120 bags constituted the first shipment of rice supplies purchased by the state government to be shipped from the town of Samee to Paletwa town, he said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said Arakan soldiers had inspected the bags of rice, but did not take any of them.
“AA troops didn’t do anything more than inspect the vehicle carrying the rice bags,” he told RFA. “The media are distorting it as AA troops committing a robbery.”
Chin Community leaders said the price of rice meanwhile has skyrocketed to 70,000 kyats (U.S. 50) per bag because of the difficulty in transporting supplies to the remote location.
Thousands of villagers from Paletwa township have been displaced by fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA and are now living temporarily in Samee and Paletwa towns.
They have experienced rice shortages since February due to an uptick in fighting between Myanmar soldiers and the AA. Paletwa also is under a government-ordered internet service ban, making it difficult for locals to make a living and conduct business.
Reported by RFA’s Washington office and Min Thein Aung, Thant Zin Oo, and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.