After nine months of pressing for answers about 18 Rakhine civilians who disappeared in the war-torn western Myanmar state, family members and witnesses were interviewed by police over allegations the missing men were abducted by government soldiers, relatives of the missing men told RFA on Wednesday.
The men were taken away in two batches in mid-March when soldiers from a Myanmar military infantry unit entered their community in Kyauktaw township amid fighting with the rebel Arakan Army (AA), later burning down dozens of homes in the 500-home ethnic Rakhine village tract.
The incident was one of numerous disappearances in the now two-year-old war in Rakhine that has killed 300 civilians and displaced roughly 230,000 others. The AA is battling for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhines, descendants of an ancient kingdom along the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Eight of the 18 Kyauktaw villagers were taken from Tin Ma Thit village on March 13, while the other 10 from Tin Ma Gyi village were arrested by troops on March 16 — all on suspicion of having ties to the AA. The body of one of them was discovered a day later in a river, riddled with bullet holes.
Wednesday’s interviews of 15 family members and witnesses by three officers at the Mrauk-U District Police commander’s office marked the first time that police have met with the missing men’s relatives following two rejected attempts to file missing-person cases at lower-level police units.
Ma Aye Hla, wife of 34-year-old Maung Than Soe, one of the missing men, said the police asked her details about how the soldiers arrested her husband.
“They asked me about the incident when my husband was arrested,” she told RFA,
“They asked about how we tried to report it to the police, how the soldiers tied up the villagers to take away, and if we knew the soldiers and their unit.”
“I answered their questions by telling them as much as I could remember,” she added. “They said they would do what they can to help our appeals.”
Appeals to investigate
Mrauk-U police said they opened an inquiry because of letters the relatives sent on Dec. 1 to President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Ministry of Defense, appealing to them to investigate the matter.
The family members of the missing villagers also said that police told them the inquiry was in response to their complaints to the president and that they would report their findings to his office.
Maung Tun Nyunt, a neighborhood leader and one of the witnesses interviewed by police, said officers told the group to tell them everything they knew about the incident.
“They told us not to fear anything and to tell them everything that had occurred in the village,” he said. “We told them everything we knew, so I think justice will be served, and we will learn the truth.”
“Now, we don’t even know whether the people from our community are dead or alive,” he added. “If they died, then we want confirmation. If they are alive and in detention, then we want to know where they are being detained. We want transparency.”
RFA was unable to reach the commander of the Mrauk-U district police station to corroborate the reports.
Other villagers who witnessed the incident said the military unit under Infantry Division Nov. 55 arrived in Tin Ma Thit village on March 13 and told residents to gather at the local primary school. Afterwards, soldiers arrested eight villagers, covered their faces, and took them to the mountains east of the village
Three days later, Myanmar soldiers arrived in Tin Ma Gyi village and apprehended 10 men, tying their hands behind their backs, along with 50 other villagers without constraints, and took them to the mountain area where their military unit was stationed. Later, they released all but the 10 men.
Maung Tun Nyunt also told police that he had to accompany the military unit that took the detained villagers to Taung Shay, a mountain range about 13 miles (20 kilometers) from Kyauktaw town, on March 16.
Credible evidence needed
When RFA asked Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun about the case during a regular press conference in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, he said that persons concerned could file reports and present credible evidence at the local military division office or with regional military commanders.
“Only when they formally report the incident and present credible evidence are we able to proceed with our work,” he said.
Relatives of the missing men tried to file missing-person cases with Kyauktaw township police on March 23 and Dec. 8, but authorities rejected their requests.
Some family members held a press conference in mid-June in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe to call attention to their plight, saying that 10 of the captives were being forced to perform hard labor in a military battalion.
RFA could not reach Kyauktaw’s Myoma Police Station or Rakhine state’s security and border affairs minister for comment.
Win Myint, the state’s spokesman and municipal minister, said he had no details about the missing villagers.
At least 22 missing persons are believed to have been abducted by Myanmar military units in Kyauktaw township this year, according to local lawmakers.
Myanmar’s military, which controls the country’s police force, has a fearsome reputation among the multiethnic country’s ethnic minorities.
An August 2018 report by the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar mentions enforced disappearances among “gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states.”
The report said that crimes against humanity in those conflict zones “include murder; imprisonment; enforced disappearance; torture; rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence; persecution and enslavement.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.