Soldiers frisk monks as Rakhine conflict deepens

The fallout over fighting in Rakhine State has included a Tatmadaw operation to search monks returning to Yangon after sitting exams in Sittwe.


SCORES OF MONKS returning to Yangon after sitting an exam in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, have complained of being stopped and searched for twelve hours by Tatmadaw soldiers who apparently suspected them of having links with the Arakan Army.

More than 200 monks, most of whom are Rakhine, were travelling in buses that were stopped during the journey in Bago Region.

One of the monks, U Pyinyananda, said they were halted in Padaung Township, at about 2am on February 15, and were escorted to a monastery in the town of Pyay, where they were held till about 2pm that day.

He said the soldiers searched the monks’ possessions, including their offering bowls, and also demanded to see their identity cards, certificates for sitting the exam and a recommendation letter for the trip to Sittwe.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

The soldiers gave no reason for the search, other than saying they were acting on orders, Pyinyananda said.

“Despite there being such exams across many states and regions, we are not aware of any other monks being subjected to searches,” he said.

“I think they suspect us of being involved with the Arakan Army,” the monk added, referring to the Rakhine armed group that the government declared a terrorist organisation after coordinated attacks on security posts in northern Rakhine on Independence Day, January 4, left 13 policemen dead.

Fighting since then between the Tatmadaw and the AA has claimed dozens of lives and displaced more than 6,000 villagers.

U Tin Nyein Oo, secretary of the Rakhine-based Rakkhapura Sassana Linkara Association, which has been organising the exams for four years, said the monks had spent 10 days in Sittwe before returning to Yangon.

He said the monks were all youths and claimed that, being without phones and confined to a strict boarding-school type environment, they were unfamiliar with politics.

The monks continued to be held and searched despite objections made to the Tatmadaw officers at the scene by senior monks who phoned from Sittwe when they learned of the situation, said Tin Nyein Oo, who added that the soldiers should have been aware about the exams for monks, which are held across Myanmar.

The treatment of the monks prompted an outcry on social media, with Facebook users complaining that they had not been given the respect they deserved in a predominantly Buddhist country.

The searches followed the arrest of nearly thirty people in Rakhine on suspicion of being in contact with the AA in breach of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act.

U Sein Shwe Bu, administrator of Wah Taung village tract in Kyauktaw Township, said 1,200 people displaced from seven villages were currently sheltering in Wah Taung. He said they were being assisted by residents, including monks, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of only two international humanitarian organisations permitted to provide aid in conflict-affected parts of Rakhine.

Sein Shwe Bu said the administrator of a nearby village tract had disappeared on January 19 after being taken away by an unidentified armed group.

“We submitted a letter to the state government asking them to investigate the case,” he said, claiming that the letter had been signed by more than 50 village tract administrators in Rakhine.

“Even if it is a chaotic and risky time for us, we will not resign,” Sein Shwe Bu said. “We are appointed by the local people, so we should remain and take care of them.”

Sein Shwe Bu told Frontier that the displaced people were from mountain villages of Kyauktaw, which they feared to return to because of continued conflict, and would need better accommodation than the tents they were currently sheltering in.

Displaced villagers were required to apply for permission from the police to go to the market, where they were restricted to buying only two “pyi” (3.6 kilogrammes) of rice per trip, he said, citing a local unit of measurement.

Sein Shwe Bu said the limit on buying rice indicated that the authorities suspected the villagers of sharing the staple with members of the AA.

“There is no reason other than that,” he said.

In its fight against the AA, the Tatmadaw is reported to be using the “four cuts” anti-insurgency strategy it has used against armed groups in Myanmar over several decades. The strategy seeks to deprive armed groups of food, funds, information and recruits, and often involves relocating civilian populations and restricting their movements.

AA spokesperson U Khaing Thu Kha told Frontier in a telephone interview on February 18 that he expected the fighting to escalate because the Tatmadaw had been stepping up troop deployments in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State.

About 2,000 government troops had been deployed in Paletwa Township in southern Chin near the border with Rakhine, he said.

Khaing Tun Kha said that targeting Rakhine civilians and monks because they were suspected of having links with the AA was discriminatory.

“The Myanmar military and government are worse than the Japanese and British during World War Two; that’s what we see,” he said.

Khaing Thu Kha admitted that the AA had escorted people living in Paletwa to Bangladesh because of artillery and helicopter gunship attacks by the Tatmadaw.

“We sent them to the areas where they can be safe,” he said.

He said the AA was always ready to hold talks with the Tatmadaw to seek a solution to the conflict, adding, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is responsible for the fighting. The Myanmar military is waging war and committing human rights abuses because she ordered the military to crush the AA.”

U Lu Maung, a resident of Yanaung Pyin village in Rathedaung Township, said fighting in the area had made villagers reluctant to leave their homes. As a precaution against artillery attacks, villagers had built a bomb shelter, he said.

“People worry that the fighting will get worse,” Lu Maung told Frontier. “No one wants war and everyone wants to live peacefully.”

TOP PHOTO: This picture taken on January 4, 2019 shows people, displaced by violence between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, arriving at a camp in Kyauktaw, Rakhine State. (AFP)

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar