Nearly two weeks after the military announced new “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine state, villagers continue to flee their homes.
The operation has focused on Kyauktan village, in Rathedaung township, but has also spilled into villages in nearby Ann township.
Border affairs and security minister colonel Min Than, who announced the operation, told Myanmar Now on Monday that the military had clashed with Arakan Army (AA) troops outside of Kyauktan over the weekend and into the week.
The AA, an armed ethnic Rakhine group, is fighting for greater state autonomy. The government earlier this year declared them a terrorist organisation.
“We can’t just let the AA occupy this area and not attack them,” he said.
Htay Aung, who fled Kyauktan just after the operation was announced, on June 23, told Myanmar Now earlier this week that he can still hear the artillery fire from the town of Rathedaung, where he is now sheltering.
He said the military was targeting Kyauktan and nearby Aung Thar Si village.
Rathedaung MP Khin Maung Latt told Myanmar Now military troops entered the area on June 28 and 29 and that the clashes are still ongoing.
“We haven’t heard gunfire today but the markets and shops are still closed,” he said on Monday.
At about 7pm on June 26, artillery shelling killed two villagers in Nat Maw village, thirty miles northwest of the city of Ann.
Three others, including a two-year-old, were seriously injured.
Villagers there told Myanmar Now there had also been shelling in nearby Dar Let North at about 4pm on June 28.
As of Wednesday, about 10,000 civilians from villages in the Ku Taung village tract of southern Rathedaung township had fled, according to regional MP Tin Maung Win.
Dozens have also taken shelter at Buddhist monasteries in Sittwe, the state capital.
On June 23, state officials ordered an evacuation of the area after the military warned of “clearance operations” targeting alleged AA insurgents in Kyauktan.
The military’s notorious 2017 “clearance operation” in northern Rakhine drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee into camps in neighboring Bangladesh. UN experts have said the operation included mass rape and killing, though the military has denied this.
In two separate statements over the weekend, the UN and a group of Western governments expressed ‘deep concern’ over the announced operations.
“We are aware of the historic impacts of such operations disproportionately affecting civilians,” a statement from the Australian, American, British and Canadian embassies said. They urged the military to “exercise restraint.”
But Min Than said the international community was misinterpreting the situation.
“To us, ‘clearance operation’ just means a military operation. The international community might be interpreting this differently,” he told Myanmar Now.
A government official in a June 27 Facebook post said the government had told Min Than not to use the phrase “clearance operation,” and state officials retracted their initial evacuation order.
But by then, as many as 10,000 had already fled.
‘They’re terrified of staying’
Since late 2018, northern Rakhine has seen some of Myanmar’s most intensive armed combat.
The fighting had already displaced more than 156,000, according to the Sittwe-based Rakhine Ethnic Congress aid group.
Kyauktan is about ten miles north of Rathedaung city, where about 10,000 were already living in some 18 temporary shelters for displaced persons.
After the June 23 evacuation order, thousands more from Kyauktan and at least nine other nearby villages fled there.
Bekka, an aid worker there, said aid groups began building three new temporary shelters on June 24 to house the new evacuees but that more will soon be needed.
“Pretty much all of the shelter space in Rathedaung is already occupied. They won’t be able to accomodate any more,” he said.
More than 1,000 have already flooded the three new shelters that were already at-capacity, locals told Myanmar Now, he said.
In Nat Maw, a village of about 500, residents were told to evacuate by 3pm, June 28, village administrator Toe Toe Htway told Myanmar Now.
“Everyone had to run to the nearest village, or to wherever they have relatives,” he said, adding that many are sheltering in nearby Dar Let West
More than 1,000 people have poured into shelters in Ann as well, but that undercounts the number that have actually fled, according to Soe Thein, the chair of a local committee for displaced persons.
“Some don’t come to the shelters,” she told Myanmar Now. “Nearly 500 people are paying 20,000 to 30,000 kyat a month to stay in people’s houses in town, with two or three families in a house.”
Just before the evacuation order was announced, the military and AA clashed half a kilometer from Nat Maw.
Dar Let resident Khaing Lin Thit told Myanmar Now many have taken buses to Kan Htaung Gyi to report their intended new location to military officials there
“We have to register where we’re going with them. They are limiting the number of people they’re letting through,” he said. “When there are clashes the roads are closed entirely.”
“They’re terrified of staying in their villages,” said Khin Maung, a local MP.