Rakhine refugees await return after Arakan Army clashes

YANGON — More than 250 people are waiting on the green light from the government to return to their villages after clashes between the Arakan Army and the military sent them fleeing from their homes at the end of last year.

Several days of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army beginning on December 27, around 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Sittwe at the border between Kyauktaw and Mrauk U townships, left an unknown number of military personnel dead and more than 30 civilians missing.

The Tatmadaw has not released casualty figures but it is believed that at least five soldiers and an officer have been killed in the fighting. State-run media carried an obituary on December 31 for an officer who died in action.

A senior government official in Rakhine State told Frontier that troops had been deployed to Mount Yamchaung, where fighting broke out, to examine the situation on the ground and make a decision as to whether it was safe for the refugees to return.

Villagers displaced by the fighting have sought shelter at temporary camps at Zayditaung, Kyiyarbyin and Ywarmabyin villages, where conditions are basic and overnight temperatures are freezing. An 8-year-old girl staying at the camp was this week sent to hospital after contracting tuberculosis.

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Several Rakhine-based volunteer groups have been assisting in relief efforts for the displaced villagers.

 “They need warm clothes, blankets and good shelters as more civilians are coming to the camps every day,” Ko Khine Moe Nya, a member of the Sharing Metta volunteer group told Frontier earlier in January.

The villagers said they fled their homes because the fighting was only a few miles away.

“We are afraid because it was the first time we have heard gunfire and that’s why we left our villages,” said U Shwe Than, 45, who fled Thandata village with his family on December 30.

Villagers said the Tatmadaw had forced some people to guide them through the jungle but they had been released after the soldiers reached their destinations.

Ko Wai Hun Aung, a prominent Rakhine writer who has been helping villagers displaced by the fighting, said about 30 people had been reported missing since December 27.

The Arakan Army is one of the groups excluded by the government from the national ceasefire agreement it signed with eight non-state armed groups in October.

In a statement released on January 7, the Tatmadaw vowed to “eliminate” the Arakan Army in Rakhine State.

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