Myanmar’s Rakhine War Produces Grim Child Casualty Toll

The intensifying war in Rakhine state between Myanmar government troops and rebel Arakan Army soldiers, often fought in populated civilian areas, is killing and maiming increasing numbers of children, international and domestic NGOs say. A recent rise in child casualties in northern Rakhine state comes as U.N. observers note an increased use of airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks on civilian communities by the Myanmar military in its 21-month-old conflict with the Arakan Army (AA), which says it fights for autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people who live in the coastal region. Forty-two children under the age of 18 have died and 135 have been injured since December 2018 by artillery shelling, gunshots, and landmine explosions, according to groups that advocate for children. They are among nearly 300 civilians killed, and more than 640 injured in northern Rakhine state and in Paletwa township of next-door Chin state, according to an RFA tally. In a conflict exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that has resurged in Rakhine, some 200,000 civilians have fled their homes to escape fighting and now live in official or makeshift displacement camps or in the homes of relatives, according to an estimate by the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local NGO. On Monday, as the U.N.’s human rights chief issued a report in Geneva warning that the army’s actions in Rakhine could constitute war crimes, two teenagers were seriously injured by mortar shells that fell onto their village amid what witnesses said was an exchange of artillery fire by a Myanmar Navy vessel in the Mayu River and AA soldiers on land. Residents of Rathedaung township’s U Gar village said Myanmar soldiers on the boat and troops in Rathedaung town fired artillery for more than an hour. AA spokesman Khine Thukha said his army’s troops did not engage in combat with Myanmar forces along the Mayu River that day, and accused two navy vessels of intentionally firing artillery at the civilian villages. A Myanmar military spokesman, however, said the troops were responding to 107-millimeter rockets and rocket-propelled grenades fired at the navy boat by the AAin a clash that lasted 30 minutes. “Regarding the civilians who got injured, you can’t say it for sure it was caused by the military’s artillery. You can’t assume the military is responsible whenever there are artillery blasts,” he said. A child injured by mortar shell explosions in western Myanmar's war-ravaged Rakhine state arrives at a hospital in Sittwe, Oct. 3, 2019. Credit: RFA Civilians ‘directly targeted’ The report on Myanmar presented Monday by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, based on interviews with more than 80 victims and witnesses whose accounts were verified, said that it was frequently the case that villages were attacked by the army without any AA provocation or presence. “Tatmadaw tactics have shifted, with periodic reliance on airpower against the Arakan Army, but in some instances it appears that civilians may have been directly targeted,” the report said, using the Burmese name for the military, Myanmar’s most powerful institution. The report went on to say that there had been a significant increase in the number of airstrikes by fighter jets, helicopter and heavy artillery attacks, and ground battles in more densely populated civilian areas. “For the most part, however, it appears that the Arakan Army was not active or present in the areas where these attacks took place and no armed clashes were reported to have been ongoing at that time,” the report said. Hardly a week goes by without reports of new Rakhine child casualties in conflict-affected areas. On Sept. 11, a six-year-old boy was transferred from a regional hospital to Sittwe General Hospital’s emergency room after sustaining serious injuries from an artillery blast in Rathedaung’s Aung Si Kone village. Cho Cho, the boy’s mother, told RFA that the child was injured while the family was hiding in a bomb shelter under their house as a military boat patrolling the Mayu River approached their village and passed. They waited until the boat was far from the village and then left the bomb shelter though they were still under the house, she said. “At that time, we heard the blast,” Cho Cho said. “It shattered a ceramic pot, house fences, and a door. Artillery fragments from the blast came under the house [and] penetrated the child’s left shoulder to the bone.” Myanmar woman and children who fled armed conflict in Rathedaung township, northern Rakhine state, find temporary shelter in Rakhine's capital Sittwwe, July 1, 2020. Credit: RFA Bomb shelters On Sept. 8, four civilians, including two five-year-olds, were killed, and a child was among several others injured by artillery blasts in Nyaung Khat Kan village in Rakhine’s Myebon township, drawing condemnation from UNICEF. “Children should never be targeted during armed conflicts,” said UNICEF in a statement issued the following day. “They are being killed in crossfire between parties to the conflict or even deliberately shot. They are being killed and maimed by landmines and explosive remnants of war in different parts of the country,” the U.N. agency said, referring to other conflicts in Myanmar, a multiethnic country of 54 million people. Adults have become inured to exchanges of artillery fire between AA troops and military vessels patrolling the rivers of Rakhine state. Everyone hides in bomb shelters as a precaution whenever Myanmar navy vessels are on the river, villagers said. Life during conflict is stressful for children, experts said. “Children in Rakhine state are insecure, both physically and mentally,” said Oo Khin Thein from Sittwe-based Arakan Youth New Generation Network, referring to minors in “dire conditions” in both internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and in towns and villages. “I found children in towns and villages in conflict areas who were physically injured by the armed conflict,” she said. “They are also emotionally impacted by trauma and fear of getting injured in artillery blasts. We see more and more children living in fear. ” Intensifying hostilities mean that nowhere in northern Rakhine is safe for anyone, said Oo Tun Win, a lawmaker from Kyauktaw township “Many people have been killed by artillery blasts while they are at home,” he told RFA. “They also have been killed by stray bullets as they fled from the blasts. People have been killed in their sleep. So, Rakhine society as a whole is not safe anywhere, not to mention the safety of the children.” Myanmar children who fled fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels in northern Rakhine state find temporary shelter at the Mittaparami Buddhist Monastery in Rakhine's capital Sittwe, April 11, 2020. Credit: RFA ‘Senseless’ shelling of a school Myanmar forces also have detained a few minors on suspicion of having connections to the AA and charged them under the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law, said Myo Myat Hein, the director of the Thazin Legal Aid Group in Sittwe. “In these cases, the accused children have not been given their rights under the Child Rights Law, [which] guarantees detainees immediate access to legal representations though this is often not the case,” he said. “In many cases, the lawyers meet the detained children only when they are brought to trial.” Those held in custody are sometimes subject to torture by authorities or disappear after their detentions, their family members have reported, according to Myo Myat Hein, who is also known as Nyein Chan. The annual report by the U.N.’s human right chief noted that schools, religious sites, and civilian homes in Rakhine have been targeted in attacks and damaged by heavy artillery and by Myanmar military patrols. In February, at least 17 schoolchildren ranging in age from five to 12 were wounded when a mortar shell hit their primary school in Khamwe Chaung village in Buthidaung township, the report said. The following month, soldiers set houses and a school ablaze and destroyed a local monastery with a rocket-propelled grenade in Minbya township’s Pha Bro village, it noted. Save the Children called the injuries “senseless” and pointed out that they occurred on the same day that the U.N. expressed concern over the continuing humanitarian impact of conflict in western Myanmar and urged parties to respect international humanitarian law and to protect civilians. “Many children are among these victims, and the actual number of casualties is likely to be higher due to limited monitoring and reporting in the conflict-affected areas,” the statement by Save the Children said. UNICEF said the children of Rakhine face long-term repercussions because “their education is being hampered by attacks against schools and the use of schools by parties to the conflict.” Myanmar has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war and armed conflicts.” In 2019, the country also ratified the Optional Protocol on Children and Armed Conflict, whereby states agree to protect children from military recruitment and use in hostilities. Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Myanmar Denies Destroying Rohingya Expulsion Evidence From 2017

Myanmar on Tuesday rejected concerns raised by the top U.N. human rights official about recent government actions in Rakhine state, saying there had been no effort to destroy evidence of the military campaign that drove 740,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday that Myanmar had made little progress in investigating and achieving accountability for the “terrible human rights crisis” created three years ago by military operations in Rakhine. “The situation of many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced people remains unresolved,” she said. Bachelet had presented a report to the Council that detailed “conduct which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Bachelet pointed out reports that government administrators have reclassified areas in Rakhine state where Rohingyas once lived, removing the village names from maps — raising concern that evidence from the 2017 military operations is being destroyed. “This should end immediately, and the prior situation should be restored,” she said, warning that the policy “could prevent Rohingyas from returning to their homes.” “I am also concerned that they risk destroying evidence relevant to determining legal responsibility for acts committed during military operations both before and after 2017,” said Bachelet. Chan Aye, director general of the International Organizations and Economic Department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rejected the allegations Tuesday. “Even if there have been crimes committed, those who changed the village names and built new structures did not do it intentionally as they have been accused of doing,” he said. “They didn’t intend to destroy the evidence and prevent them [the Rohingya] from returning.” The report Bachelet presented to the Council on Monday cast doubt about Myanmar’s pledges to hold military personnel accountable for their actions in Rakhine, noting that there has been little movement beyond the sentencing of a few soldiers and officers found guilty of atrocities during courts-martial. While a U.N.-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar found signs of genocidal intent in the 2017 mass expulsions, Myanmar’s domestic Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) said that war crimes and serious human rights violations had occurred in Rakhine but did not have genocidal intent. “The available findings of the national commission either deny or reject responsibility, calling into question both the willingness of authorities to ensure genuine accountability and the independence of the national commission,” the latest UN report said. Military tribunal Following the announcement of a court-martial for some 2017 killings in Rakhine, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said Monday that investigations are being conducted in line with recommendations from the ICOE report, produced by the panel the Myanmar government set up in 2017. “We are now releasing this statement to announce which organization is doing what kinds of investigations following our announcement in July,” he said. “I cannot give any details on how far the investigation has progressed,” he added. “We are trying to hold a trial before a military tribunal before the end of 2020.” The military issued a statement in the military-run Myawady Daily newspaper on Monday that the findings of a court of inquiry it set up in July will result in a court-martial, expected to be begin before the end of the year. A court headed by led by Major General Myat Kyaw examined alleged violations against the Rohingya in Chut Pyin and Maung Nu villages in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township during the crackdown in 2017. The ICOE’s report issued in January cited killings that had taken place in the two villages, where about 300 civilians are believed to have died at the hands of soldiers during “clearance operations.” The Office of the Judge Advocate General now will investigate “possible wider patterns of violations” in northern Rakhine in 2016-2017 based on the findings in the ICOE’s report, the statement in Myawady Daily said. Allegations regarding Taung Bazar village in neighboring Buthidaung township are included in the scope of the Maung Nu investigation, it said The military expects to hold the court-martial before the end of the year. Two Myanmar Army deserters confessed to killing Rohingya women, men, and children, and committing rape in Taung Bazar village and surrounding communities in September 2017, according to a statement issued by Fortify Rights last week. The two soldiers’ confessions had been recorded by the rebel Arakan Army and obtained by Fortify Rights. ‘No one will say anything’ Maungdaw township residents said no one has been summoned for questioning by the military yet, but if they are, it would be difficult for them to testify about what happened in the communities. “Even if they asked the civilians here to come for interrogations, no one would dare say anything against the government. They all fear it,” said one local who declined to be identified out of fear for his safety. “No one will say anything that will upset the government,” he added. Other residents indicated that they would feel comfortable speaking freely only if an independent investigative commission led by international organizations probed the allegations. “The investigations need to gain the trust of the people and credibility from the international community,” said Nickey Diamond, an activist with Fortify Rights. “If the military is conducting the investigation exclusively, it will not have international credibility,” he said. “It needs to work with independent human rights groups and domestic and international media to gain credibility.” Nandar Hla Myint, a spokesman for the opposition Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) said the government is handling the Rohingya issue the wrong way and that it should not bow to international pressure. “We need to tell the truth to the world about what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “We have to tell them firmly. We should not be weak on an issue like this.” Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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UN Human Rights Chief Sees Possible War Crimes in Myanmar Army Actions in Rakhine

The U.N. human rights chief on Monday said the Myanmar military’s brutal tactics in its 21-month-long war in Rakhine state were producing possible war crimes, and said Naypyidaw had made no progress in resolving an earlier crisis sparked by the army’s expulsion of Rohingya Muslims. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that hostilities since between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) had led to disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, deaths in custody, and the destruction of property. “Civilian casualties have also been increasing,” she said. “In some cases, they appear to have been targeted or attacked indiscriminately, which may constitute further war crimes or even crimes against humanity.” Bachelet made the comments as she presented a report to the 47-member Council that provided detailed accounts of military actions in Rakhine state — “conduct which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] in Chin and Rakhine states,” she said. “Tatmadaw units have undertaken widespread arbitrary arrests and detention of civilians. Use of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment against detainees has also been alleged,” said the report, using the Burmese name for the powerful military. Following Bachelet’s statement, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N., said in prerecorded remarks that the Rakhine issue is “complex and delicate” and that the government has placed priority on finding a sustainable solution to it. He went on to say that “terrorist attacks” in Rakhine were to blame for the current humanitarian crisis there, which has been complicated by fighting between the government army and the AA. Kyaw Moe Tun also said that Myanmar is willing and able to address the issue of accountability” and that the government has been taking necessary action based on the recommendations of the Myanmar government-appointed  Independent Commission of Enquiry (ICOE) set up to probe the military-led crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017. The ICOE said it its final report, which it submitted to Myanmar President Win Myint, that war crimes and serious human rights violations had occurred in Rakhine but did not have “genocidal intent.” Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar's permanent ambassador to the United Nations, address the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in prerecorded remarks, Sept. 14, 2020. Credit: UN Web TV screenshot ‘A terrible human rights crisis’ The new U.N. report noted that since last year “a significant increase in incidents of airstrikes by fighter jets, and helicopter and heavy artillery attacks, and in ground battles in more densely populated civilian areas.” “For the most part, however, it appears that the Arakan Army was not active or present in the areas where these attacks took place and no armed clashes were reported to have been ongoing at that time,” it said. “The destruction of villages and civilian homes has caused suffering for civilians. Directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law,” said the report, a follow-on to the U.N.-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar, set up after the 2017 military campaign expelled Rohingya to Bangladesh. Myanmar has made limited progress on the FFM’s recommendations to conduct independent and impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights crimes committed not only in Rakhine but also in other parts of the country, Bachelet said. “Three years have passed since the military operations in Rakhine created a terrible human rights crisis,” she said. “The situation of many hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced people remains unresolved.” A September 2019 report by a U.N.-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar found signs of genocidal intent in the 2017 crackdown and presented critical evidence that government security forces committed atrocities and serious crimes under international law. The FFM report also found that the state was responsible for other violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Though the Council and the U.N. General Assembly have called for accountability, “no concrete measures have been taken,” Bachelet said. National initiatives, including secretive and selective courts-martial and the national Commission of Enquiry, have been inadequate and fallen short of international standards,” she said. A number of satellite images and eyewitness accounts indicate that areas in northern Rakhine have been burned in recent months, she said, while noting that the Myanmar government has contested the reports. “This only underscores the need for independent, on-the-ground investigation,” added Bachelet. Lack of accountability processes In the meantime, government administrators have reclassified areas where Rohingya villages once stood, removing the communities’ names from maps and potentially altering how the land may be used, Bachelet said. She expressed concern that evidence relevant to determining legal responsibility for acts committed during military operations in Rohingya communities before and after 2017 may be destroyed. The report cast doubt about Myanmar’s pledges to hold military personnel accountable. “So far, the steps taken through its national commission and military justice processes appear to have been insufficient and to have replicated past patterns of delaying effective accountability processes and maintaining impunity,” it said. “The available findings of the national commission either deny or reject responsibility, calling into question both the willingness of authorities to ensure genuine accountability and the independence of the national commission,” the report said.

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Myanmar Election Campaign Launch Tripped up by Coronavirus Surge

Coronavirus cases have spiked in Myanmar this month just as campaigning opened for nationwide elections, forcing political parties to deal with restrictions on rallies, stay-at-home-orders, and quarantines in the two-month race for votes on Nov. 8. Like continental Southeast Asian neighbors Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, Myanmar largely avoided widespread COVID-19 infections that spread around the globe through the first half of the year. But Myanmar has seen a deadly return of the virus since mid-August, with spikes in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in populous areas and conflict zones, prompting health and election authorities to impose social distancing rules. The Ministry of Health and Sports announced Sunday that campaign gatherings would be restricted to 50 people who must remain six feet apart, wear face masks, and have access to hand sanitizer. The Union Election Commission (UEC) issued guidelines for political parties and candidates — suspending door-to-door campaigning and rallies in open areas and buildings in places where the government has issued stay-at-home orders. Localgovernments require candidates who visit their districts to undergo quarantines. As of Thursday, Myanmar registered 2,150 confirmed COVID-19 cases amid the resurgence of the highly contagious respiratory illness, adding 261 new cases overnight. The country now has had 14 coronavirus-related fatalities. About 37.5 million voters in Myanmar’s population of 54 million are eligible to cast ballots in the Nov. 8 elections. Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties or who are independents are vying for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures. Campaigning is complicated by long-running wars in big states, such as Kachin and Shan, where swathes of territory is controlled by ethnic armies that restrict or ban voting. In western Rakhine state, a 21-month-old war has forced 200,000 rural villagers to take refuge in overcrowded shelters and hampered efforts to deal with what is now Myanmar’s worst coronavirus hotspot. USDP to file complaint On Monday, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who also chairs the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, canceled her first campaign stop in Yangon’s Kawhmu township — her current parliamentary constituency — after a staff member tested positive for the virus, and others in contact with the person were quarantined. “We have negotiated with the Health Ministry over election campaigning trips,” she told participants in an online forum. “I decided not to go to Kawhmu township for campaigning because we need to follow the Health Ministry’s orders when virus infections are on the rise.” But the NLD held campaign events in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in which hundreds of people were involved in excess of the Health Ministry’s 50-person cap on gatherings, according to an official from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). USDP chairman Than Htay told reporters on Wednesday that he would file a complaint with the ministry about the NLD’s failure to adhere to coronavirus restrictions. “Yesterday, I visited two villages in Zeyar Thiri township in Naypyidaw [and] I saw NLD party members campaigning with hundreds of people,” he said. “This is a blatant violation of COVID-19 restrictions. “I will send an official compliant letter to the ministry today,” he added. A supporter of the National League for Democracy party stands near Union Solidarity and Development Party members as they campaign for the upcoming general elections in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon, Sept.9, 2020. Credit: AFP 'We will try our best' Political parties and candidates in northern Rakhine state, the current epicenter of a coronavirus surge in Myanmar, also began campaigning Tuesday, though efforts to get their messages to voters are being hampered by COVID-19-related restrictions on activities and by the armed conflict between government forces and the Arakan Army. Health Ministry officials have put in place stay-at-home orders in all 17 townships in Rakhine, some of which are also affected by government-imposed internet service blackouts aimed at stifling rebel communications. The suspension of service has placed further limitations on campaigning activities, members of political parties said. Tun Aung Kyaw, a political steering committee member of the Arakan National Party (ANP), Rakhine state’s predominant party which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhine people, said ANP candidates cannot do any campaigning at all. “The UEC said we can have gatherings of up to 50 people, but the regional orders contradict this permission,” he said. “We have many challenges,” he added. “We have registered our candidates to contest in the election, [so] we will try our best to campaign for the election.” Pe Than, an ANP lawmaker who represents the Myebon township constituency and is running for reelection, said he and other candidates can’t do much given township stay-at-home orders and the ongoing hostilities in northern Rakhine. “Both circumstances are making election campaigning impossible,” he said. “The UEC hasn’t yet announced the townships that will not be able to hold elections, so we don’t know what to do. We just have to wait and see.” The Health Ministry also ordered lockdowns in all but one of 44 townships in Yangon region, home to 7.6 million people and Myanmar’s largest city, where the number of COVID-19 cases also has spiked. Small, minority parties at a loss Many candidates from small and ethnic-minority based parties say the virus restrictions will hinder their ability to compete, while some have suggested that the elections should be postponed. “The best we can do is go around the city in vehicles carrying a sound box playing campaign music and slogans,” said Ko Ko Gyi, chairman of the People’s Party, at the party’s campaign launch event on Tuesday. “Even for that, we now need permission from the Health Ministry.” “Regardless of the rules and regulations, they are very difficult to strictly follow on the ground,” he added. David Hla Myint, the chairman of the relatively new United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP) who is running against Aung San Suu Kyi for the Kawhmu constituency parliamentary seat, told local media on Thursday that the well-established parties will have an edge in campaigning. “The established parties can do various campaign activities despite the restrictions,” he said. “We will not have equal opportunities if we hold this election under these conditions.” “It would be best to postpone the election,” he said. Candidates from southeastern Myanmar’s Mon state also said they are finding it difficult to do election-related activities because of the increasing number of COVID-19 infections and tighter Health Ministry restrictions. “Now, everyone is cautious as the pandemic is getting worse,” said Aung Naing Oo from the Mon Unity Party who is the deputy speaker of the state parliament. “We are also working around-the-clock not to break the rules issued by the Health Ministry.” Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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