In Rakhine, those left behind struggle as husbands and sons go missing

Khin Mu San, a 43-year-old resident of Mee Wa, a village in northern Rakhine state’s Kyauktaw township, can barely make ends meet. Every day, she walks to Pe Chaung, another village 13km to the south, to earn a little money delivering goods. 

Her life wasn’t always so hard. Until two years ago, she and her family made a decent living growing paddy on their three acres of land. But then the war in northern Rakhine state began, and Kyauktaw became one of the worst-hit conflict areas. Since then, fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA) has deprived her of her former source of income.

But in Khin Mu San’s case, there is another factor adding to her hardship: On November 9, 2019, at the height of the conflict, her husband was arrested on suspicion of belonging to the AA. He hasn’t been heard from since.

Without her husband, her troubles have mounted. When she isn’t climbing over mountains on her way to work, she is dealing with problems at home. Her three sons—the oldest 19 years old and the youngest just three—need their father.

“Don’t worry about anything, they said. The Tatmadaw told us they would be released,” said Ma Aye Hla, wife of abductee Than Soe 

Kyaw Tin, her 42-year old husband, was abducted by the Tatmadaw while he was fishing in a brook near Mee Wa, a village of more than 1,300 inhabitants located about 16km north of the town of Kyauktaw on the upper part of the Kaladan River. Most of the village’s 325 households depend on farming for their livelihood, but few dare tend to their fields now because of the heavy military presence.

Armed conflict in the area has claimed many civilian casualties and left many more homeless. As the conflict drags on and hopes dim for those who have gone missing, Khin Mu San and those like her face a bleak future.

According to Oo Htun Win, Kyauktaw’s representative in the Pyithu Hluttaw, 22 men have disappeared from the township in the past year after being taken into Tatmadaw custody. 

Kyaw Tin is the only abductee from Mee Wa, but other villages in the area have also lost residents. Taung Pauk, Pike Thae, and Mala have all reported a missing villager, while eight have disappeared from Tin Ma Thit and another 10 have gone missing from Tin Ma Gyi.  

‘I can’t stand this suffering anymore’

Ma Aye Hla, a mother of three from Tin Ma Thit, has had to care for her family on her own ever since her husband’s arrest on March 13, along with seven others. 

Ma Aye Hla watched as a military column entered the village and took her husband, 34-year-old Than Soe, and his father and brother into custody.

“Don’t worry about anything, they said. The Tatmadaw told us they would be released. I don’t know where they were taken. We were scared away by soldiers who said not to ask what happened to them,” she told Myanmar Now.

She said she went to the state capital Sittwe twice to tell the media about the arrests and to call for the release of the abducted villagers, but to no avail.

“The children are asking about their father. I can’t stand this suffering anymore,” she said. 

“We are staying in an IDP camp, where we have nothing to eat except what we are given. No donors are proving support right now. We fled empty-handed. We didn’t bring any blankets. And my husband is not here. We have a lot of trouble.”

“I want to know where they’re keeping him. I want him to be released. It has been a long time,” said Wun May Oo, wife of abductee Maung Kyi Lin

In Tin Ma Gyi, about 8km from Tin Ma Thit, the situation is even worse. On March 13, the same day Ma Aye Hla’s husband was taken away, Tin Ma Gyi was shelled and at least 10 houses were destroyed by fire. 

Three days later, soldiers arrived in the village and detained about 50 people. Most were later released, but 10 are still missing.

Maung Kyi Lin, 35, was among those who were not released. His wife, Wun May Oo, is now sheltering at an IDP camp in Kyauktaw with her two children. She said that her husband delivered firewood to brickyards and charcoal kilns for a living. 

“We waited two or three days for them to be released,” she said of the remaining prisoners, including her husband.

“Innocent villagers were being arrested, so many ran away in fear. We finally decided to flee, too, because there was no one left in the village. When we arrived in Kyauktaw, we heard that the village was on fire,” she said.

Almost nine months have passed since they took her husband away, she said, but she still has no idea where he is. 

“I want to know where they’re keeping him. I want him to be released. It has been a long time,” she said.

Missing persons

Pyithu Hluttaw MP Oo Htun Win and Amyotha Hluttaw MP Myint Naing said they sent letters reporting the abductions to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), the president and the state counselor in April, but have yet to receive a reply. 

“Collaborating with those who love human rights, those who value democracy, and civil rights organizations, we presented the situation at the grassroots level. We also sent documents and some information. But so far, we have not heard anything in particular about these people,” said MP Oo Htun Win. 

Photos of those abducted from Tin Magyi village (Photo: Oo Htun Win)

Last Thursday, however, MNHRC chair Hla Myint told Myanmar Now that he never received any such letter. He said the only formal complaint he was aware of from Kyauktaw was one made in October concerning two people who were killed and four who were injured.  

“I have only one complaint from Kyauktaw. It was not about 22 residents. It was about four injured and two dead. We sent it to the Department of Defense because it was related to armed conflict,” he said.

At a press conference in Naypyitaw on November 27, military spokesperson Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun said there was no need to debate whether there were any such disappearances.

“I think he was killed,” said the father of abductee Kyaw Tin

“Most of the people we have arrested are under investigation. There may be arrests and detentions. However, we are acting in accordance with the law,” he said.

“It would be more convenient if we could inform and cooperate with the respective authorities in a legal way once a ceasefire is in place,” he added.

Noting that there has been a cessation of fighting in Rakhine state since the November 8 election, he urged those concerned about the disappearances to report them to the police.

“If there is a suspected disappearance, the police will inform the army if suspicion falls on the Tatmadaw,” he said. “They will also investigate it officially. There is no need to go beyond the law to deal with this matter.”

Kyauktaw is not the only township where the military has detained civilians. According to a list compiled by the Sittwe-based Thazin Legal Aid Group in November, there are more than 90 civilians being held in Rakhine state on suspicion of associating with the AA. There have also been a number of prosecutions by the Tatmadaw.  

Victims of both sides

Meanwhile, the AA has also faced criticism for holding civilians against their will. In one recent high-profile case, on October 24, it abducted three candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy. None of the three have been released.

In neighboring Chin state’s Paletwa township, where the group is also active, more than 200 civilians have been detained by the AA since 2015. At least 21 are still being held. 

In Mee Wa, the father of Tatmadaw abductee Kyaw Tin said he had given up hope that his son was still alive. “I think he was killed,” he told the local village administrator, Maung Kyaw Nyunt, who spoke to Myanmar Now.

But his wife, Khin Mu San, was not yet ready to abandon the effort to learn what had happened to her husband, who she insisted had no involvement with the AA. 

Dead or alive, she said, she wanted to know what the Tatmadaw did to him.

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