On this International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance, two Chin journalists and human rights activists demand the Arakan Army stop abducting and disappearing civilians.
By SALAI ZA UK LING and SANG HNIN LIAN | FRONTIER
Today is International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Enforced disappearance has blighted civilian life in Paletwa Township since the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army began fighting in 2015. In the years since, it has only become more prevalent and applied more systematically.
There are now 18 confirmed cases of missing people in Paletwa, but this number is likely an undercount in a region notoriously difficult to access, travel in, and – for the last 15 months – subject to an ongoing internet blackout. In most of these incidents, villagers set out to buy supplies or search for food and never return.
The first documented case took place in 2015, when 30-year-old Ling Min went missing for six months, when the AA and Tatmadaw engaged in fighting in the Khumi village of Pyin So. Since then, arbitrary arrest and detention – usually by the AA – has become commonplace. In January 2019, 52 villagers from Kin Ta Lin, in northwest Paletwa, were taken against their will to the AA’s Camp 3 outpost on the border with Bangladesh. That November saw the high-profile abduction of the ethnic Khumi Amyotha Hluttaw MP U Hawi Tin, who the AA held incommunicado for three months near Kyauktaw town, Rakhine State.
While the targeting of elected MPs from other ethnic groups shows the authoritarian and ethno-nationalist agenda of the AA, the group justifies its less documented but more widespread and persistent practices of arbitrary arrest, abduction and, in some cases, enforced disappearance by claiming a right to rule the territory of Paletwa and the people in the Chin hills.
In the isolated and inaccessible towns and villages around Paletwa, the AA demands loyalty from Chin groups. Indigenous populations such as the Bawm, Mru and Khumi are punished if they’re seen to be cooperating with the Tatmadaw. This puts Chin civilians in a very difficult balance between the two armed groups, neither of which it could be said represent their interests – which are primarily food security, health and education.
More recently, the AA arrested four Chin youths travelling on the Kaladan River between Rakhine and Chin states. One of the them, U Aung Soe, remains in custody. No information has been given to his family on his condition or whereabouts.
Aung Soe, described by his parents as a “smart, good looking boy who had been actively helping internally displaced people via his connections with the Khumi Youth Association”, had been travelling to receive blessings from his parents (a Chin tradition) to help his two struggling businesses, a sportswear shop and a small tea shop in Paletwa. Local officials believe he was targeted because of his affiliation with the Chin League for Democracy, an ethnic political party.
This January, three bodies, including that of a teacher, were found in the forest close to Sein Sin village in Paletwa Township with multiple knife wounds. An AA spokesperson denied the group was involved, but eyewitnesses saw AA soldiers stab Hla Kyaw, the headman for Ton Ma Wa village whose body was later found dumped by a riverbed, giving little credibility to the AA’s denials.
Village headmen are perhaps the most vulnerable. They are the first point of contact for any state or non-state actor operating close to or within a village. For conflict-affected villages in Paletwa Township and in northern Rakhine State, the balance that village headmen must strike to keep themselves and their villages safe from either side very often has dire consequences.
In January, after accusing a village headman of giving information to the Tatmadaw, AA soldiers tied one of his two daughters to a tree in Kyee Lay village and beat her. Later, they beat him as well. It was the second such incident in Kyee Lay.
In February, in Myebon, five AA soldiers beat another man, U Maung Phyu, until he lost consciousness, then dragged him from his home for allegedly talking to the Tatmadaw. He has not been seen since.
Every time a Chin person is forced to labour for the Tatmadaw, to give food to Tatmadaw soldiers or even speak to Tatmadaw troops that patrol the area, they are punished by the AA. These punishments are becoming more violent, with the AA quick to blame locals for giving their location away and making them vulnerable to heavy fire from the Tatmadaw, or for allegedly guiding Tatmadaw battalions through the dense forests.
All of these acts have led to inevitable tensions between the Rakhine and Chin, and forced the Chin National Front, an ethnic armed group, back into Paletwa, in violation of the terms of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement it signed in October 2015.
The tensions risk pushing more young people to take up arms. In the wake of Hawi Tin’s arrest, hundreds of Chin youth have sought to join the CNF as trainees. Likewise with local youth from the Bawm community, and there are credible accounts of the same trends in the Khumi community as well.
If the AA wishes to be seen as revolutionaries rather than terrorists, ending the practice of enforced disappearance would be a good start. Even better would be to release those still in custody. Their families have a right to know where they are and in what condition they are in.
An “Arakan Dream” that is a state in which civilians are in constant fear of arrest and torture feels more like a nightmare right now in Paletwa, but we’re all awake.
Salai Za Uk Ling is a Chin human rights activist and journalist who serves as the deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization. In this role, he has testified before the European, Australian, Canadian and UK parliaments and has spoken at United Nations forums.
Sang Hnin Lian is a former journalist who now serves as director of the Human Rights Education and Religious Freedom Program at the Chin Human Rights Organization. Lian is also part of the advocacy and research team of CHRO, which is responsible for identifying CHRO’s advocacy priorities, directing and conducting research and documentation. In this role, Lian is also responsible for liaising with UN human rights bodies and others.