Myanmar: Fresh evidence of new violations during military operations in Rakhine State
Military blocking access to food and indiscriminately shelling villages
Army units responsible for past atrocities involved in operations
More than 5,000 civilians displaced since December
“The Myanmar military have operated from the same brutal playbook for decades” – Tirana Hassan
Myanmar's security forces have shelled villages and blocked civilians from accessing food and humanitarian assistance in Rakhine State in recent weeks, Amnesty International said today.
Security forces have also used vague and repressive laws to detain civilians in the area, following a crackdown that began following armed attacks by the Arakan Army in early January.
Amnesty has received reports that army divisions involved in atrocities against the Rohingya in August and September 2017 have again been deployed to Rakhine.
Tirana Hassan, Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, said:
“These latest operations are yet another reminder that the Myanmar military operates without any regard for human rights. Shelling inhabited villages and withholding food supplies is unjustifiable under any circumstances.
“Despite international condemnation over the Myanmar military’s atrocities, all evidence suggests that they are brazenly committing yet more serious abuses.”
These violations come after a UN Fact-Finding Mission called for the criminal investigation and prosecution of senior Myanmar officials for crimes under international law against the Rohingya in Rakhine, and against ethnic minorities in Kachin and northern Shan states.
Arakan Army attacks
On 4 January – Myanmar’s Independence Day – an ethnic Rakhine armed group known as the Arakan Army carried out coordinated attacks on four police posts in northern Rakhine, reportedly killing 13 police officers. The Arakan Army has fought the military as part of an alliance of armed groups in northern Myanmar and has clashed sporadically with security forces there.
Days after the attacks, Myanmar’s civilian government instructed the military to launch an operation to “crush” the Arakan Army, which the government spokesperson referred to as a “terrorist organisation”. The military has since moved considerable assets and troops into the region, which local activists and media reports have said include soldiers from the 99th Light Infantry Division (LID). Amnesty implicated that division in atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017 and against ethnic minorities in northern Shan in 2016.
According to the UN, more than 5,200 men, women and children had been displaced by the ongoing fighting by 28 January. They are overwhelmingly from predominantly Buddhist ethnic minorities, including the Mro, Khami, Daingnet and Rakhine.
Amnesty interviewed by telephone 11 people affected by the fighting, as well as humanitarian officials and local activists in Rakhine. Most said they fled their villages after the security forces shelled nearby or placed restrictions on food.
Tirana Hassan said:
“The Myanmar military have operated from the same brutal playbook for decades and must be held to account. The UN Security Council must urgently refer this situation to the International Criminal Court.”
Three people from Auk Pyin Nyar, a predominantly ethnic Mro village in Kyauktaw Township, told Amnesty that two artillery or mortar shells exploded within 100 metres of their village on 21 December last year. As the villagers fled early the following morning, they heard more shells exploding nearby.
A farmer from the same village, who returned days later to collect belongings, said money was stolen from houses after people fled. He blamed Myanmar soldiers, who were seen in and around the village at the time.
A 24-year-old man, from a predominantly ethnic Mro village in Tha Yet Pyin village tract in Buthidaung Township, similarly described hearing artillery or mortar shells exploding around his village on 13 January this year. The villagers fled to the local monastery and then, later that day, to an informal displaced persons camp in nearby Done Thein village. The man returned to his village four days later and saw damage to some houses in the village, as well as the local school. He said money had been taken from some houses, at a time when the Myanmar security forces controlled access to the village.
Media reports have detailed several other incidents. Radio Free Asia reported that a seven-year-old boy named Naing Soe was critically injured when an artillery shell exploded near his home in Tha Mee Ha village tract in Rathedaung Township, around 26 January. Radio Free Asia said that the Myanmar military fired into the village after soldiers triggered an improvised explosive device nearby. News outlets reported that the Myanmar military looted valuables from the village. The Irrawaddy also reported that two brothers, aged 18 and 12, were seriously injured when an artillery shell exploded by their house in Maungdaw Township on 16 January.
Although Amnesty could not definitively determine the Myanmar military’s responsibility for each individual attack that injured civilians or damaged or destroyed civilian property, such unlawful tactics have long been a hallmark of the military’s operations against armed groups. In a June 2017 report, Amnesty documented in detail indiscriminate shelling by the Myanmar military during its operations in Kachin and northern Shan, which killed and injured civilians and displaced thousands.
Tirana Hassan said:
“These unlawful attacks are sowing fear in many villages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians have been displaced from their homes as a direct result.”
Restrictions on food and aid access
A 34-year-old woman from a remote ethnic Mro village in Kyauktaw Township told Amnesty that Myanmar soldiers and police restricted the amount of rice that could be brought to her village. The villagers were already experiencing shortages of basic food supplies, as the fighting that erupted nearby in December last year prevented them from harvesting rice or bamboo, a key cash crop.
As the situation worsened, a group of people from the village, including the 34-year-old woman, went to a police station and military checkpoint near Taung Min Ku Lar village to request permission to carry rice back to their village. She said the security forces told them they could bring a maximum of six pyi (a Burmese unit equivalent to a 2.56-litre container) of rice and would need an authorisation letter from the security forces.
“We talked among ourselves that it was impossible to live in our village anymore,” she told Amnesty. “We didn’t want to move to a [displaced persons] camp, but we couldn’t trade what we found in the forest, and we couldn’t get through enough supplies.”
The village emptied, as did several neighbouring villages facing similar circumstances.
A local activist told Amnesty that he had helped obtain recommendation letters from the police to allow people to move around Kyauktaw Township, but the authorities are still stopping people from carrying food, claiming that it is to cut supply lines to the Arakan Army.
The Myanmar authorities have also imposed further restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine. On 10 January, the Rakhine State government barred all UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations, except the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and World Food Programme (WFP), from operating in five conflict-affected townships. Many organisations have had to stop their humanitarian assistance, undermining emergency response and relief efforts in one of Myanmar’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions.
The Rakhine State authorities have, along with ICRC and WFP, provided some cash and in-kind assistance to people displaced by the fighting, but recipients described it as insufficient and inconsistent. Several humanitarian officials said the restrictions also seem to be a way to keep international eyes off the military’s operations.
Tirana Hassan said:
“The Myanmar authorities are deliberately playing with the lives and livelihoods of civilians. As we’ve seen time and again, the military’s priority is not to protect people in the crossfire, but rather to hide their abuses from the international community.”