Atrocities amid return to war in western Myanmar – The Diplomat

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About four months after fighting resumed between the Myanmar military junta and the Arakan Army (AA) in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, junta forces have increasingly resorted to airstrikes and artillery fire against civilians, despite reported casualties on the ground. One of Myanmar’s most powerful and best-organized ethnic revolutionary groups, the AA, which was founded in 2009 by 26 Rakhine youths led by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to fight for greater autonomy for the people of Rakhine State, claims now have 30,000 soldiers under arms.

The latest fighting shattered an informal ceasefire agreement the AA signed with the Myanmar military in November 2020, ahead of this month’s general election. This ended two years of intense fighting in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states. Shortly after the military seized power in a coup last February, the junta offered several favors to AA and Rakhine people to uphold the truce and released several people from custody, including nationalist Rakhine politician Dr . Aye Maung and the family members of AA leaders. It also ended the two-year internet lockdown in northern Rakhine and removed the AA from its list of “terrorist” organizations.

During the lull in fighting, the AA’s political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), focused on expanding its administrative and judicial institutions throughout Rakhine State. As the ULA administration grew, the junta made attempts to stem this administrative expansion and increased its forces in the region. Then, in early June, the AA declined an invitation to attend junta-hosted peace talks in the capital, Naypyidaw, shortly after which junta forces began arresting dozens of AA-affiliated people in northern Rakhine townships and to block the gates of these cities. The AA responded by arresting at least 20 junta employees in areas of Rakhine State it controlled.

Tensions between the two exploded on July 4 after the junta launched an airstrike on an AA base in an area controlled by the Karen National Union in eastern Myanmar, killing at least six soldiers and injuring many more. A week later, the AA launched a retaliatory attack against junta forces in northern Rakhine, killing at least four, wounding many others and capturing at least 14 alive.

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In early August, a series of armed clashes broke out between the AA and junta forces in three locations in northern Rakhine and another in southern part of neighboring Chin state.

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The Rakhine War at a glance

As of November 17, based on local news and AA statements, the author has identified around 100 battles that have broken out between junta forces and the Arakan Army since July, while more than 15 clashes could be classified as fierce fighting based to the intensity of the conflict.

The four communities where these clashes took place are Maungdaw, Buthedaung and Rethedaung communities in northern Rakhine and Paletwa community in Chin state. Other less frequent, minor armed clashes and mine blasts also occurred in central and southern townships such as Kyauktaw, Mrauk U, Minbya, Maybone, Taunggok and Ann. The most frequent clashes took place in Patetwa and Maungdaw, both of which have international borders and are therefore of greater geostrategic importance.

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More than 150 Myanmar junta soldiers are believed to have been killed in these clashes, although the exact number is difficult to determine. The exact number of AA casualties is also difficult to determine due to a lack of news reports, but at least 10 are believed to have died or been injured.

In the three months from August to October, at least 204 civilians were arbitrarily detained by the junta, of whom at least 62 remain in custody. The AA responded by arresting at least 8 junta employees in areas of Rakhine State it controlled.

At least 29 of those arrested by the junta were members of its administrative staff, including school teachers, doctors and people from the general administration department who were accused of paying taxes or donating funds to the ULA. This includes social workers accused of otherwise assisting AA members and civilians displaced by the conflict.

Apart from that, since the junta told the United Nations and international NGOs on 16. Barred access to the six townships of northern Rakhine state on September 1, residents, particularly thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), are facing shortages of food, shelter and other supplies. Last month, the United Nations noted that the situation in Rakhine was “of particular concern” and that more than 17,400 people, including Rohingya, had been displaced.

Since fighting resumed after a brief lull in early August, junta forces have also blocked highways and roads connecting the state capital Sittwe to the commercial hub of Yangon and Rathedaung to Maungdaw in northern Rakhine.

Increasing mass atrocities

As junta forces have lost ground to the AA and other ethnic resistance groups across Myanmar, they are reportedly increasingly relying on air strikes on their opponents, particularly targeting unarmed civilians believed to be supporting them.

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The Irrawaddy reported that the junta launched a total of 28 airstrikes in five regions including Rakhine from October 1 to 28, killing 111 and wounding at least 126 in the north of the country, killing more than 60 people and many more were injured. As of October 31, at least seven airstrikes have taken place in Rakhine since July, killing at least 18 civilians, including seven children, and injuring at least 31.

In addition to airstrikes, the junta stepped up artillery offensives in Rakhine State in the first two weeks of November. At least 17 civilians were killed and at least 50 injured by artillery shells in northern Rakhine in the six days between November 10 and 16.

November 16 was a particularly deadly day. At least 11 civilians, including three children, were killed and at least 27 others injured, according to local media reports, after four mortar shells were fired at Jeitchaung village in northern Maungdaw Municipality. On the same day, at least four residents were killed and three people, including a 9th grade student, were injured in an artillery attack on the village of Chaungtu in Kyauktaw Township.

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Also ten days earlier were junta soldiers from the military’s No. 550 Light Infantry Battalion stationed in Ponnagyun shot and killed at least nine civilians, mostly elderly, including a 92-year-old woman, and at least ten houses in Hsininngyi Village, Ponnagyun Township, burned down.

In summary, in the first 16 days of November alone, the number of atrocities committed by the junta in Rakhine state was greater than in the previous three months. From August to October about 20 civilians were killed and 30 injured by artillery shells and air raids. At least 36, including children and elders, were killed and at least 72 injured over a 16-day period in November. At least 12 civilians were killed and at least 39 injured in Kyauktaw alone.

As the armed conflict between the junta forces and the AA escalates and inevitably spreads to southern Rakhine – the latter gave good on 11. Despite nearly two years of relative peace in Rakhine, civilian casualties are increasing and the humanitarian situation across the state is steadily deteriorating.