Three days of heavy fighting in the far north of Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Rakhine state between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army forced more than 3,000 civilians to flee their villages, a relief worker said Thursday.
The fresh fighting resulted in the death of one villager and injured three others.
The refugees from Rathedaung and Maungdaw townships join a tide of around 200,000 civilians living in Buddhist monasteries and crowded camps after being displaced by the armed conflict in Rakhine state since late 2018, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a Myanmar NGO.
Fresh fighting between the two armies began on July 12 and combat raged until July 14, the day on which the civilians were killed and injured, local relief workers said.
“Some people fled to Maungdaw, and some villagers fled to Rathedaung and Buthidaung. Some fled all the way to Sittwe. In total, there were around 3,000 people,” said Kyaw Min Khaing, a volunteer who is assisting the displaced civilians in Sittwe.
“More people are arriving today. Some will arrive tomorrow. Many local villagers who have been dispersed during the fighting are now gathering inside IDP [internally displaced persons]camps,” he said.
Rathedaung and Maungdaw, coastal districts on the Bay of Bengal, have been torn by conflict since nearly three years ago, when the Myanmar Army responded to an attack on border guard posts by a militant group with a scorched-earth campaign that drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims across the nearby border to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar military’s information team said in a Facebook post on Thursday that AA soldiers stationed around three villages in Rathedaung township were “using villagers as human shields” to commit terrorist acts and to block the lines of communication in the area.
“Today, military columns start launching a ‘counter-terrorism operation’ against the AA insurgents around that area to reopen the communication lines and to rescue the villagers,” it said.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha said shooting by the Myanmar military during fighting killed a civilian in Chain Khar Lain village, and that the hostilities continued into Thursday with government soldiers using heavy artillery near Kyauktan village.
The AA seeks autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in the state. Formed in 2009 with an estimated 8,000 fighters last year, the AA was declared an illegal association and terrorist organization by the government in March.
The IDPs who fled to Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, are being housed at Buddhist monasteries and must rely on donors for food.
In southern Rakhine state, meanwhile, as many as 3,000 displaced villagers who have sought refuge in urban Ann township have been forced to rent houses there because camps are full, and they are not receiving any humanitarian assistance since they are not in camps, people assisting the villagers said Thursday.
About 1,500 other IDPs are staying temporarily in two now full IDP camps sent up by the government to handle the influx of civilians who fled their homes
Myo Lwin, a volunteer helping IDPs in Ann, said people who live outside official refugee camps are not receiving any aid and have been left on their own to find food and lodging.
The Myanmar Army has restricted the transport of rice — Myanmar’s staple food — in more than 40 villages into Rakhine’s Ann township township since January in an effort to cut off vital supplies to AA.
Win Myint, Rakhine state’s spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, said it is very challenging for the government to provide assistance for IDPs who do not live in camps.
But he added: “We may able to provide some assistance depending on their needs. We could build makeshift shelters for them.”
According to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, 194 civilians have been killed during the 19-month conflict. (Source: RFA)