Smriti Sen Gupta
Fierce fighting erupted Sunday between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA) in two townships in western Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine state, with disputed reports of military casualties on both sides, spokesmen for the warring armies said, while state lawmakers submitted an emergency proposal to petition the central government to restore regional internet service after it was cut off as a security measure.
The morning clash occurred on a mountain range near Ghahtar Taung Dam, northeast of Kyauk Kyar village in Mrauk-U township, when Myanmar troops attacked the AA from helicopters in an area where hostilities also took place on June 21 and 22.
Arakan troops, who seek greater autonomy in the state, ambushed a Myanmar military column of about 100 soldiers, resulting in a loss of lives, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.
“The enemy lost more than 20 [soldiers], and many of them were injured,” he said. “The Myanmar Army has been shelling continuously throughout the day.”
Two AA troops were injured during the clash, he added.
RFA could not independently confirm the AA’s claim about casualties among Myanmar troops.
Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun confirmed the clash on Sunday, but denied any casualties among government troops.
“There was a battle yesterday morning between Kyauktaw and Mrauk-U,” he said. “It occurred while our troops were maintaining security in the area. We had no causalities, but we seized two weapons from [the AA] side.”
The fighting that took place east of Kyauk Kyar village in the northernmost part of Mrauk-U township caused hundreds of civilians to flee their homes in neighboring Kyauktaw township, said Tun Thar Sein, a lawmaker representing the township in the Rakhine state parliament.
“Some returned home after the fighting stopped, but others did not and continued to stay at the Buddhist monastery in Kyauktaw’s Ywamabyin village,” he said. “There must be around 300.”
During a separate skirmish in Minbya township on Sunday, Myanmar troops captured an AA outpost, Zaw Min Tun said, though RFA could not independently confirm this.
“There was a battle near Khamaung Wa village in Minbya township,” he said. “We overran an AA outpost. I don’t know exactly if helicopters were used. They probably could have been. A [dead] body and three guns were seized during the search.”
Khine Thukha said the Myanmar Army launched the offensive in the same area where clashes occurred on June 21 and 22.
“Two helicopters came and bombed,” he said. “We didn’t have any causalities in the fighting, but we don’t know about the enemy.”
Rockets hit military tugboat
Also on Sunday, three AA rockets hit a Myanmar Navy tugboat moored at the mouth of Satyokya Creek in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe, reportedly killing two soldiers and injuring another.
Police have arrested six civilians in connection with the attack, including two young men from a displaced person’s camp at Kayuchaung Monastery and four others from the compound where the rockets were fired, said state lawmaker Aye Thein who represents Sittwe township.
“The two young men are Soe Naing Linn and Maung Kyan Thu,” he said. “The others are Aung Naing Win and three of his family members who guard the compound.”
The arrested boys’ aunt, Hla Hla Nu, told RFA that her nephews went to the creek to go fishing.
“These two kids went to the creek for fishing at nightfall,” she said. “They returned to the refugee camp in the monastery around 10 p.m. The next morning around 10 a.m. five policemen in plainclothes from the No. 1 Myoma Police Station came and took the boys away. They said they needed to question them.”
A CCTV security camera recorded the two boys returning from their outing, Hla Hla Nu said.
They are now being questioned at the district police commander’s office following an interrogation at the police station, she added.
Deputy Commander Maung Maung Soe from Rakhine State Police told RFA that police are questioning the pair according to criminal procedures, but that he didn’t know the exact number of people being held for questioning.
Authorities also rounded up for questioning Sunday night more than 30 laborers working at the compound from which the AA rockets were fired, but released them the next morning, one of those detained said.
“Around 6 p.m. last night, we were taken to the police station,” said the laborer who declined to be identified out of fear of repercussions. “They interrogated us at the police station. They said it was about the explosion. They recorded our answers. They asked many questions about the explosion. We had to sleep at the station. They released us this morning around 8 a.m.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA on Sunday that Arakan fighters launched the attack because the boat was being used to transport reinforcements for military troops in the region.
He also said that the civilians detained by authorities were not involved with the ethnic army.
“The people who have been rounded up are all civilians,” he said. “None of them have connections to us. As usual, the Myanmar military is carrying out arbitrary arrests to charge civilians in retaliation after they lost their soldiers. None of the people they have arrested belong to the AA.”
Myanmar military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the attack has hindered the military from ensuring the safety of vessels that use the public waterway.
“We are taking care of security in the city,” he said. “The attack occurred on the waterway that enters into Sittwe city. It is the area commonly used by passenger boats. This attack is a hindrance for our work on securing safety in public transportation.”
Internet service cut in Rakhine
Meanwhile, the Rakhine state parliament on Monday submitted an urgent motion to appeal to the central government for the resumption of internet service in eight townships after it was temporarily shut down on June 21 because of the fighting, two lawmakers said.
Lawmakers will discuss the motion on Wednesday.
Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered telecommunication providers to close down internet service in Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, Minbya, and Myebon townships in Rakhine state and in Paletwa township in neighboring Chin State, where the national army is engaged in armed conflict with the AA.
Township residents report that they have only had telephone services since June 21.
Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, set the cutoff of mobile data networks in nine townships could affect monitoring in the conflict areas of Rakhine and Chin States.
“As there is no media access and serious restrictions on humanitarian organizations in the conflict-affected area, the entire region is in a blackout,” Lee said in a statement Monday.
“I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area,” she added.
Rakhine state lawmaker Hla Thein Aung who represents Minbya township and who submitted the motion said the service cutoff could lead to more violence in the region.
“The shutdown of internet services can lead to even more violence and human rights violations,” he said. “We are deeply concerned and terrified as the government has ordered an information blackout instead of improving access to information in a time of conflict.”
State parliamentarian Tun Thar Sein said the internet shutdown has prevented lawmakers from communicating with the communities they represent and state offices from doing business.
“The internet shutdown hinders communications between parliament members and their constituencies,” he said.
“It also has caused losses in businesses and government offices because they have had to use fax machines instead.”
Soe Thein, permanent secretary of Ministry of Transport and Communications, said the reason for the shutdown is the lack of rule of law in the conflict zone.
“The security in these townships is deteriorating,” he told RFA at a press conference on June 22. “It impacts the well-being of local civilians. For these reasons, the government has closed the internet service.”
“Besides, this is not a complete blackout,” he said. “Conversational communication can still carry on since SMS and phone services remain operational.”
The central government will restore internet service once the region becomes secure and stable, he added.
Zaw Min Oo, chief external relations officer of Mytel, one of the operators that cut off internet services in Rakhine state, said the government’s order is in accordance with Myanmar’s telecommunications law.
“We don’t have the intention of disagreeing with the order,” he said. “This issue is already covered in the contract since we received our [operating] license. The telecommunications law also dictates that the government may shut down the services if necessary, so it is doing it according to the procedures.”
Laborer dies in army custody
In a related development, one of several laborers detained by Myanmar forces on June 20 at temple construction site in Mrauk-U township on suspicion of having ties to the AA has died in detention, his relatives said.
Nay Myo Tun, 23, from Pauktaw Byin village, was detained with a handful of others working on a building project at a local Buddhist temple in Mrauk-U’s Waitharli village.
“People told us that Nay Myo Tun’s body was sent to Kyauktaw Hospital,” said a relative of the dead man who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution. “That’s how we learned he was dead.”
“Nobody contacted us to let us know about his death,” the relative said. “He was not an AA member, and we couldn’t see him when he was being detained.”
Zaw Min Tun said government forces cannot always contact the relatives of those who die in custody.
“We can contact families in time for some cases, but not for others,” he said. “It might be because of security reasons that we do not contact families. According to our procedures, we [first] have to open a case and get an autopsy. We definitely do these things.”
Government soldiers also detained about 14 other workers digging stones at a road construction site near Pauktaw Byin village on June 20.
The Myanmar military released eight of the men on Sunday, though the remainder are still in detention and under investigation at Kyauktaw Myoma Police Station on suspicion of having ties to the AA, which has denied that they are associated with the rebel army.
Since hostilities between the Myanmar Army and the AA escalated in late 2018, government soldiers have detained more than 90 civilians on suspicion of having ties to the AA. Three dozen are still under investigation, while 45 have been charged and three sentenced, the military said at a press conference on June 22.