By MRATT KYAW THU | FRONTIER
The recent resumption of armed clashes in Rakhine State has sent more than 1,500 residents fleeing their homes, amid growing fears they could be conscripted into the Tatmadaw as porters.
Myanmar government forces and the Arakan Army have been fighting across Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Ponnagyun townships since April 16, with dozens of Tatmadaw troops believed to have been killed.
The clashes, the fiercest in the state since December, prompted ethnic Rakhine to stage a series of May Day protests calling for an end to the conflict. Demonstrations were held in Yangon and all major towns in Rakhine State, including the state capital Sittwe.
According to the Arakan Liberation Party, more than 1,600 people were being housed in temporary camps as of May 2. While the majority are from Ponnagyun Township, where residents of 13 villages have been forced to flee, the most recent displacement occurred in Rathedaung Township, with about 100 households seeking refuge in temporary camps.
ALP vice chair Daw Aye Nu Sein said communities were not prepared for the influx of displaced people and needed help.
“They really need to have proper camps set up with tents. At the moment they are just staying in monasteries and with relatives. But that means hundreds of people are relying on just three or four toilets, and they are also struggling with water shortages,” she said.
On April 21, ALP officials met representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency and International Committee for the Red Cross seeking their help to provide displaced families with shelters.
For now, though, Rakhine philanthropic groups and small volunteer teams have been the main provider of support to the temporary camps.
But meeting the needs of hundreds of displaced families is not the only issue.
Those living near conflict areas are terrified of being forced to work as porters for the Tatmadaw, according to the ALP.
The group said in a statement on April 24 that it had evidence of forced portering, including cases where porters had been killed. It called on the Tatmadaw to halt the practice. The ALP also said it had provided evidence of 18 such cases, together with video of soldiers beating civilians, to a Ministry of Border Affairs team dispatched to the conflict area to investigate the allegations.
“Some villages are trapped beside the conflict zone. They are afraid of forced portering so we need to rescue them urgently,” Aye Nu Sein said.
The Tatmadaw is yet to respond to the accusations. A President’s Office spokesperson said he was unaware of the Ministry of Border Affairs investigation.
Rakhine politicians have begun raising the issue in the national parliament in an effort to pressure the military and government to act to stop the forced labour.
On May 2, Amyotha Hluttaw representative for Sittwe U Wai Sein Aung, from the Arakan National Party, submitted a proposal calling for an end to forced portering, as well as a ceasefire in Rakhine State.
Despite objections from two military MPs, the proposal was approved for discussion and is likely to be raised next week.
The MP for Rathedaung in the Pyithu Hluttaw Daw Khin Saw Wai said she planned to submit a similar proposal. “I will also call for a ceasefire in Rakhine State … I think we all have to work together for the sake of the Rakhine people.”
The National League for Democracy-backed government’s handling of the conflict has also come in for scrutiny and criticism.
Rakhine people are upset that the new chief minister, U Nyi Pu, has not yet visited the camps, almost three weeks after fighting broke out.
The NLD parliamentarian was installed in the role by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over the objections of the Arakan National Party, which holds the largest number of seats in the Rakhine State Hluttaw.
Prominent political writer U Wai Hun Aung, from Sittwe, said Nyi Pu needed to step up his game.
“For now at least, I have to say that U Nyi Pu has not handled the situation well at all,” he said. “He needs to at least say something about the fighting, but hasn’t said anything yet.”
The fighting broke out after the military ambushed a number of AA outposts. These offensives are believed to have cost the lives of at least 20 government soldiers, including a senior officer. Obituaries for two soldiers were carried in state media last week, but the military has not confirmed any other losses. AA casualties are also not known, but are thought to be lighter.
Wai Hun Aung said he believed the fighting was an effort by the Tatmadaw to test Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government. He suggested the military may be trying to reinforce the message that armed conflict is “none of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s business”, just as the NLD leader prepares for peace talks that she has described as a “second Panglong” – a reference to the historic compact her father reached with ethnic leaders in February 1947.
The military has blocked the AA from participating in peace talks with the government due to its alliance with the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. Together with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, they launched a bold offensive in February 2015 in an effort to win back territory from the government in northeastern Shan State’s Kokang Self-administered Zone.
Wai Hun Aung said it was important that the suffering of the Rakhine people was not hostage to political games.
“The NLD shouldn’t be quiet on the Rakhine conflict,” he said.