Myanmar’s conflict with the Arakan Army in Rakhine state has caused severe food shortages in a small corner of adjacent Chin state, where residents of some 200 villages are trapped by roadblocks and mandatory coronavirus lockdowns, a humanitarian worker said Thursday. As many as 60,000 residents of remote villages of Paletwa township, a Rakhine-speaking area in southern Chin that borders Rakhine state, are cut off from the closest food markets in Paletwa town — blocked by the warring armies or locked down by local authorities amid a resurgence in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mai Nan Wai, spokesperson for the Relief and Rehabilitation Committee for Chin IDPs (RRCCI). For the past 21 months, the rebel Arakan Army (AA) has fought government forces in northern Rakhine state and in Paletwa township — areas where it seeks to assert control to secure greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in their historic homeland along the Bay of Bengal near Bangladesh. The fighting has left nearly 300 civilians dead and displaced about 220,000 others. The road blockages and lockdowns have meant that villagers in Paletwa township have seen their supplies of rice dwindle over recent months. More than 200 of 400 villages in Paletwa township may be in desperate need of rice, Myanmar’s staple food, Mai Nan Wai said. “All villages close to Paletwa are trapped now,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service. She said residents of Tone Ma village contacted her group for rice supplies, while all communities close to Samee town and along the Kaladan River are also experiencing shortages. “They have been cut off from Paletwa,” she said. “The villages south of Samee are close to Kyauktaw in Rakhine state, but AA troops are active in that area, so we cannot send rice supplies there.” Many elderly people in the villages have chronic illnesses such as diabetes and paralysis are facing a shortage of medicine because they cannot get to cities and the RRCCI cannot get to them, Mai Nan Wai said. The humanitarian group estimates that 26,000 to 60,000 displaced Chin civilians are now trapped in their villages, while more than 18,000 have left their homes and sought shelter in cities during the armed conflict. Money won’t help State officials are sending donations from the government, the public, and the RRCCI directly to villages so residents can buy food themselves, Chin state Municipal Minister Soe Htet told RFA on Sept. 19, though he indicated that this alone would not alleviate severe food shortages. Some civil society organizations are also working with state officials and donating money, while the UN World Food Programme is trying to help civilians living in displacement camps, he said. “But it is very challenging for people who live outside the IDP camps,” Soe Htet said, referring to those still in villages. “We need the help of the Union government and the military to get things done.” Villagers said the money would be of no use since they cannot go anywhere to buy food, but that the need for rice supplies was urgent. Taung Min, a resident of Paletwa’s Kaytha village, said people are afraid of being shot if they leave their homes to travel to buy food. “All the roads are closed,” he told RFA. “For now, we are just eating what we have. The food supplies are running low. We can’t travel down south. If we do, they will shoot us. We cannot buy food anywhere. All the gates are closed now.” Before the roads were closed off, Taung Min paid as much as 65,000 kyats (U.S. $49) per bag of low quality rice, he said. A pastor from Paletwa township who declined to be identified out of fear for his safety said conditions there are growing worse, and aid workers can now safely reach only 30 villages. “Even in Paletwa town, a bag of rice costs more than 65,000 kyats,” he said. “Now all the roads connected to town are closed.” One displaced resident, who also declined to provide his name, said that rice supplies would not be delivered to at least 100 villages in Paletwa township until October. A former Chin state minister wrote on his Facebook page that villagers who have tried to bring back rice from other areas have been robbed on their return trips and have not been able to enter Paletwa because of the lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Nearly 110,000 people live in Paletwa township, with more than 90,000 of them residing in 388 villages, and the remainder living in Paletwa town. Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translted by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Ten Rakhine civilians were released Thursday after being detained and interrogated overnight by Myanmar troops, with several villagers saying they were kicked and beaten by soldiers in what a local lawmaker called a common occurrence in the war-torn state. The detainees, who ranged from 16 to 40 years old and included a school teacher, were from two villages in Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township, one of the main theaters in the 21-month-long conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. They were detained by a column of Light Infantry Battalion No.376, villagers said. “Yesterday morning, the government troops entered Thayetpin village and questioned 19 villagers. Nine were released in evening and other 10 were taken along with the troops,” said a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. He said that many villagers from Thayetpin, home of nine of the 10 detained villagers, fled as soon as government troops entered the villages in fear of beatings during questioning about the Arakan Army, a rebel group that champions ethnic Rakhine autonomy in Myanmar’s western-most state. “There were some physical assaults like punching and kicking but no bloody incidents during interrogation,” said one of the villagers who were released by the troops Thursday but was afraid to give his name. “But we do not want to tell everything for fear of repercussion.” The father of the detained teacher said, “My son was faultless, and he did not do anything. I was worried the troops would beat or kill him.” RFA’s Myanmar Service tried to reach military spokesman Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun for comment on the villagers’ claims, but he did not answer telephone calls. In previous cases in which abuses against civilians have been alleged, Zaw Min Tun has said the army arrests and questions those suspected of having ties to the Arakan Army -- a policy he said was based on security reasons and did not target ethnic Rakhines. A boat carrying villagers fleeing conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State at the state capital Sittwe, Sept 23, 2020 Credit: RFA But Tun Tun Win, a lower house MP for Kyaukphyu constituency in Rakhine said that mistreatment of civilians was common in northern Rakhine state, where RFA has recorded 30 civilian deaths in army detention and interrogation from the beginning of 2019 to August 8. “In Rakhine state, many villagers were arrested and tortured during interrogation. We filed complaints, but relevant government departments ignored them,” he told RFA. “Villagers came to me and filed complaints. We investigated them and found out they were only civilians and have no relation to any troops or organizations,” added Tun Tun Win. According to a local activist group, Rakhine Human Rights Protection and Promotion, more than 200 villagers in the northern part of the state have been arrested by the army. The overnight incident in Kyauktaw came 10 days after the U.N human rights chief told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the Myanmar military’s brutal tactics in Rakhine state, including “widespread arbitrary arrests and detention of civilians,” were producing possible war crimes. “Use of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment against detainees has also been alleged,” said a report submitted by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, using the Burmese name for the military. Following Bachelet’s statement, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s permanent representative to the U.N., said in prerecorded remarks that “terrorist attacks” in Rakhine were to blame for the humanitarian crisis there. The AA has been engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces since late 2018 as the rebels fight for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in what they consider to be its historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast. The war has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured more than 640 while displacing more than 220,000 civilians. Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Khin Ei. Written in English by Paul Eckert.
The rebel Arakan Army has released a video showing three Myanmar security officers captured in the war in Rakhine state appealing for talks to win their freedom, a move that has divided experts over whether displaying the captives violates international laws on prisoners of war. Some observers saw the video release as a way to inform family members that the captives are still alive that also could prompt negotiations on a prisoner exchange. Others said making the captured men talk violated their privacy — if not Geneva Convention rules on the questioning of war captives. The Arakan Army (AA) released a video on Sept. 19 in which the three POWs — a battalion commander, a captain, and a police captain — tell their family members not to worry about them and urge senior military commanders to secure their release via negotiations. The AA did not say when the interviews were recorded. Major Thet Naing Oo, an army officer captured during combat in Kyauktaw township’s Meewa village on March 10, says in the video that the AA has treated its captives well and not tortured them. He asks the Myanmar army to enter talks for their release and urges his family not to worry about him. “There are some comrades, including myself, who were detained for various reasons, while on duty,” he says. “Because we are all part of a national brotherhood, I’d like to appeal for our rescue by using the approach of negotiations between top leaders, without harming the civilians.” The AA has been engaged in hostilities with Myanmar forces since late 2018 as the rebels fight for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people in what they consider to be its historic homeland on the Bay of Bengal coast. The war has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured more than 640 while displacing more than 220,000 civilians. Both the AA and Myanmar military have detained soldiers from each other’s forces during the armed conflict as well as civilians suspected of supporting or aiding the enemy. Another POW in the video, Captain Shane Htet Linn, also appealed for his release and said he had not surrendered to the AA. “I want to appeal to the military and other leaders not to label me as traitor and give up on me,” he says in the video. “I want them to have sympathy for me and take care of us.” He also expressed hope that he would see his elderly parents again and be able to take care of them. Police officer Kyi Soe, who has been held by the AA for nearly 11 months, said on the video that he was captured while on duty. “I want to appeal to [my superiors] not to abandon me, considering the fact that I have served in the position to which I was assigned,” he said. “I want to appeal to my superiors to find a way for my release.” Video prompts appeals AA soldiers detained Kyi Soe in late October 2019 near Yey Myat village in Buthidaung township as he was departing on a river ferry to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to report for his assignment to a police border outpost. The AA has said that it is holding 17 members of the police force, including Kyi Soe, and more than 30 members of the Myanmar military, including Major Thet Naing Oo. The ethnic army said it has released 16 transportation department workers and two older Myanmar soldiers who were captured in January. The airing of the video, which was seen by 1.7 million people on social media as of Wednesday, prompted appeals from relatives of other detainees who were not shown in the video. Suang Thida, the mother of missing immigration officer Myo Swe Oo, said she hasn’t received news about her son — her only relative — and that the government stopped paying his salary after December, when he was snatched by the AA with two coworkers from a boat on the Mayu River in Buthidaung township. “I want to appeal to the AA to release my son on humanitarian grounds,” said the woman, who lives in Hsi Hseng Town in Shan state, after contacting RFA hoping to get information about Myo Swe Oo. Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun would not confirm whether the men in the video were government soldiers, but he said that that the military has not abandoned detainees held by the AA. “With regards to the detained soldiers and government employees, I want to say to their family members that we are constantly working on military operations to get the latest information on them and secure their release,” he said. But he added that the military would not negotiate with the AA because of its status as a terrorist group — a label the government applied in March. RFA could not independently confirm the identities and ranks of the men in the video or determine whether their comments were recorded under duress. The AA said it respected the privacy rights and safety of the POWs and that it released the video to inform their families that the men are alive and healthy. AA spokesman Khine Thukha said all captives held by the rebel army are in good health and will be released if the Myanmar military frees AA soldiers that it is detaining. An Arakan Army soldier participates in a drill at an undisclosed location in an undated photo. Credit: RFA Opportunity for negotiations? Ann Thar Gyi, chairman of the local civil society organization Thingaha Kanlat Rakhita Aid Association, called on the AA to negotiate with Myanmar forces for the release of all soldiers, policemen, and immigration officers. “We’d like to see them returned to their family members,” he told RFA. Min Lwin Oo, an attorney who used to work with the Asia Human Rights Commission, said he believes the AA issued the video to in an effort to spark negotiations with the Myamar military. “I think they know they should not broadcast such videos on social media, but the chances for negotiations between the two armed forces are null,” he told RFA. “That’s why they have issued the video — to initiate an opportunity for negotiations,” he added. “They intend to create a situation where the United Nations or International Committee of the Red Cross will intervene and serve as a third party for negotiations.” On Wednesday, local rights experts and veteran journalists raised questions over whether the AA’s release of a video of POWs violated the Geneva Convention, a series of international laws governing the treatment of wounded or captive military personnel during armed conflict. Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, a human rights education group based in Yangon, pointed out that Article 17 of the Geneva Convention, which pertains to the questioning of war captives, says POWs are only bound to give their surnames when questioned. “Nothing else can be asked,” he said. “Now, we have seen the interrogations on additional information from the POWs. This constitutes a violation of the Geneva Convention agreement.” Revealing the personal information of POWs could result in risks for their family members, coercing them into taking certain actions, even if the detained soldiers are safe, he said. Protect the POWs But former Myanmar information minister Ye Htut disagreed, arguing that international law does not prevent the release of video recordings of POWs in civil wars. He said he had seen similar recordings during armed conflicts in other countries. “With regard to detained civilians captured in domestic armed conflicts, the Geneva Convention agreements required the armed forces not to violate their human rights,” he said. “There are no rules preventing the broadcast of interviews of detained persons.” Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, concurred with Ye Htut. “I don’t think it violates anything ethically,” he said. Rights activist Nickey Diamond from Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights said the issue is disputable given the stated intention of was to inform others about the well-being of the war captives, though the AA should have adhered to certain ethical principles. “For the sake of their security and privacy, the faces of the POWs in the video should have been blurred,” he said. “It is good that the family members of these POWs got to learn that their loved ones are still alive, but whether it is appropriate or not under the international law still needs to be debated,” Diamond said. Earlier this month, Fortify Rights obtained an AA video with the recorded confessions of two Myanmar privates who admitted to taking part in a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state in 2017 that included torture, mass rape, indiscriminate killings, and arson. The soldiers had deserted the government army and contacted the AA for assistance. They later showed up on the Bangladesh border and asked authorities for help, but were turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands. The ICC, which tries individuals, in November authorized an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers against the Rohingya. RFA did not see the video interviews and could not independently verify the soldiers’ accounts. Reported and translated by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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.
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.
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.
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.