Myanmar junta’s artillery strike on Sittwe was ‘hell’: eyewitness

A man working in the Myoma Market when the shell hit described the gruesome aftermath, saying he believes more civilians were killed than the AA and local media have reported

*Names in this story have been changed for security reasons

Rakhine State’s capital city was completely silent the day after a junta shell killed at least a dozen people and injured scores in an open-air market on Thursday morning, said a man who witnessed the slaughter firsthand.  

Moe Naing, whose name has been changed to protect his safety, lives and works as a grocery vendor in Sittwe, Rakhine State’s capital and largest city. He said he was with his wife in his grocery shop at the Myoma Market in Sittwe when the shell struck. 

The rocket-propelled projectile had spiralled on a downward arc, broken through the walls of three buildings, then detonated on a building where morning shoppers were moving about inside, Moe Naing said. 

Shrapnel and debris from the explosion had rained down on the roof of his shop, he said.

“It was only about six or seven feet away from my head,” Moe Naing added. “I thought I was done for when it hit.” 

Although the Arakan Army (AA) and local media have confirmed a death toll of 12, Moe Naing claims at least 15 were killed in Sittwe’s Myoma market. 

“I heard some people died after arriving at the hospital,” he added. 

Moe Naing described the scene immediately after the shell hit. 

Panicked people with blood on their bodies and clothes scattered frantically in every direction. Vendors did not even pause to take the money from their stalls, or grabbed only whatever belongings were in easy reach before running. 

“It was like hell in the market yesterday. Some people were shouting and running, others killed. The entire market was like a new hell,” he told Myanmar Now. 

“The explosion dismembered people. Some were found with their entrails gone, their heads or limbs blown off,” Moe Naing said, adding that he had seen people looking in vain for their family members’ missing body parts. 

Moe Naing also claimed that after the blast, junta personnel had taken some 30 injured victims out of the Sittwe hospital by helicopter to prevent them from spreading information about the attack that might implicate the military. 

Many people injured in the explosion chose not to go to the military-staffed hospital, fearing they would be arrested or harmed, he added. 

“They are worried that they will be in trouble or be killed if they go to the hospital, because the military has been doing such things,” Moe Naing said. 

The destruction was extensive. While the shell had made a direct hit on the market, it had also damaged at least three civilian homes just outside the market’s perimeter, according to Moe Naing. 

Although some Sittwe residents have speculated that the junta troops had been aiming a long-range shot at a battlefield farther away in Ponnagyun Township when they fired the shell, Moe Naing disagrees. 

“I think they deliberately shot to destroy the market, and kill people while they were shopping,” he said, adding that he had seen authorities stopping people from photographing or recording the destruction before detaining them. 

The regime-run outlet Myawaddy Daily alleged that the Arakan Army (AA), not the junta, was responsible for the artillery strike. While it acknowledged that some civilians had been killed and injured and said junta authorities had taken the injured to the 500-bed Sittwe Hospital, it did not provide exact casualty figures.

“It’s as if we have to read the opposite meaning in all the news they report,” Moe Naing responded when asked about the claims published in the junta newspaper. 

The Arakan Army—the largest and most powerful ethnic armed organisation in Rakhine State—is currently engaged in fierce fighting against regime forces for control of townships throughout the state and has begun to menace Sittwe. 

The AA has already succeeded in capturing six townships in Rakhine State and the neighbouring Paletwa Township in Chin State. It is now fighting with junta forces near Ponnagyun, only about 20 miles from Sittwe.  

A member of the AA said its forces were close to capturing a base belonging to the junta’s Infantry Battalion 550 in Ponnagyun, but said that the junta forces had been firing off heavy artillery day and night. 

“I just heard more shells being fired,” he said as he spoke. 

In the state capital, most of the shops are still shut the day after the artillery strike, Moe Naing said, with some vendors only working because they need to keep their shops open for survival.  

He added that wealthy residents of Sittwe went abroad or to Yangon long ago, while most of the people remaining are those without the means to leave, or people displaced from elsewhere having come to stay with relatives. 

“People who need to make ends meet are keeping their shops and market stalls open. Of course we’re scared, but we can’t just stay scared,” he said. 

A former member of the Rakhine State parliament, who asked that his identity be withheld, remarked that civilians are always the ones who bear the brunt of war, and that it should be avoided at all costs. 

“There is no fighting in Sittwe. Poor people were just working and selling in the market,” he said. “I think they were simply, brazenly attacking civilians.”

Another Sittwe resident confirmed that most Sittwe locals have chosen to keep their shops closed out of fear since the artillery strike on Thursday. 

“We feel like we are trapped with nowhere to run,” he said. 

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