More than 100 ethnic Rakhine refugees in Myanmar’s Rakhine state called on Myanmar’s military in a protest on Tuesday to withdraw from villages abandoned amid heavy fighting over the last two years between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army.
The protesters, residents of camps in Rakhine’s Kyauktaw township, also called for an end to thefts by Myanmar soldiers of villagers’ property and for landmines to be cleared from areas near their former homes, sources said.
Many have now lived in the Kyauktaw camps for the last 10 months, one displaced villager told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview on Tuesday.
“We are facing hardships in securing the food and shelter we need, and these conditions are not good for our health,” the villager named Saw Shwe Thein said. “And this is why we want to return to our homes to retrieve some of our belongings.”
“But we can’t go back, because military troops are still stationed there,” he said.
Myanmar troops now quartered in the villages are meanwhile stealing rice, livestock, farm machinery, and other equipment, displaced villagers say, with one source calling the thefts a loss of villagers’ lifetime savings.
“We left all our property—paddies, rice supplies, and livestock—behind when we escaped from our homes,” Than Hlaing a former resident of Rakhine’s Marlar village told RFA, adding, “If we don’t do anything now to stop these thefts, nothing will be left.”
“These things represent our life-long savings and this will be a massive loss for us. And this is why we are protesting to call for government help,” he said.
Among other things recently stolen were 700 baskets of paddy seeds taken by government soldiers on Jan. 7 while villagers were away, Than Hlaing said.
‘It is an ugly thing’
Zaw Win, a leader of Tuesday’s protest, demanded that military chiefs take prompt action against soldiers who commit offenses against civilians, adding, “It is an ugly thing that members of the country’s military should seize civilians’ property by force.”
Efforts to contact Rakhine state municipal minister and spokesperson Win Myint for comment on Tuesday were unsuccessful. But military spokesperson Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied that government troops were responsible for thefts.
“Our military forces are risking their lives to serve the country, and there is no reason for them to remove civilians’ property. They don’t need the extra burden,” he said.
“Soldiers all have their own guns, ammunition, and food to carry, and they don’t need anything else to bring along,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“Also, we are not bringing any reinforcements into these areas, and we haven’t built any more outposts. We have no reason to do this. We are only working to strengthen the peace process and to safeguard elections.”
“I would say that these allegations [against the army] were deliberately manufactured by outside groups, and not by the villagers themselves,” he said, adding that landmines can be cleared from village areas only after fighting ends between government forces and the Arakan Army.
But Saw Shwe Thein said there are witnesses who have seen Myanmar troops seize civilian property in spite of official denials.
“The owners of one rice mill said that around 700 baskets of paddy seeds had been stolen by soldiers and sold to a Muslim businessman from Gaung Toke village. And then a commanding officer of their unit showed up at Marlar village on Jan. 17 and told the villagers to say that nothing had been stolen,” he said.
Hundreds killed, thousands displaced
More than 500 people in over 125 households once lived in Kyauktaw township’s Marlar village, but fled their homes beginning in March 2020 amid armed clashes in the area and are now sheltering in camps for internally displaced persons in Kyauktaw town.
The two sides in the Rakhine war have maintained a cease-fire since Nov. 8 elections and held a series of behind-the-scenes contacts.
Two years of fighting between Myanmar government forces and the ethnic Arakan Army in several northern Rakhine townships have left about 300 civilians dead, injured hundreds of others, and left about 226,000 displaced.
Many clashes have occurred close to civilian areas, with heavy shelling directed at villages and landmines planted near civilian communities and villagers’ farmlands, sources say.
Reported by Ni Min Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.