Myanmar’s Rakhine Conflict Creates Food Shortages in Next-Door Chin State

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.

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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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