Civilian Death Toll From Clashes in Myanmar’s Rakhine Climbs to Over 250

Fighting in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state between government forces and the ethnic Arakan Army has killed 257 civilians and injured 570 others during the period from December 2018 to May of this year, according to figures compiled by RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Most were killed by stray bullets or artillery fire or died in military custody, with others caught in crossfire between the two warring parties in northern Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, with each side blaming the other for the deaths, sources told RFA.

AA raids on police outposts in late 2018 and in early 2019 triggered the conflict in northern Rakhine state — a region already devastated by the Myanmar army’s campaign to expel 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

Both armies are responsible for the loss of civilian life, though, Htu May, a member of parliament in Rakhine’s Upper House told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“Both sides are responsible for civilians’ deaths in Rakhine,” Htu May said.

“Moreover, it is the responsibility of [Myanmar’s central] government, which can’t arrange a peace between these two groups. If the government can’t make any progress toward peace, and the fighting continues, only the ethnic people and other civilians will be hurt,” she said.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) says that more than 250 civilian homes were burned in May alone, with many people injured, and international organizations have called for greater protection for civilians and their property in Myanmar.

Government won't confirm numbers

Reached for comment, Myanmar military spokesperson Gen. Tun Tun Nyi declined to confirm RFA’s tally of civilian deaths, saying government forces don’t collect detailed information on civilian casualties and that AA troops sometimes pose as civilians to carry out attacks.

Myanmar’s army also follows strict rules of engagement in combat, Tun Tun Nyi said.

“The Army doesn’t attack civilian areas unless we have to fight back against the AA when they attack us,” he said, adding that the Myanmar military doesn’t publicly announce the numbers of its own soldiers killed in battle.

“We do this for reasons of security, not to disregard their service,” he said.

Civilians killed in fighting in Rakhine are killed by government air strikes and the use of heavy weapons, AA spokesperson Khine Thukha said. “The AA doesn’t carry out air strikes or fire heavy weapons into villages.”

“Media reports say that civilians were killed in ‘fighting by both sides,’ but actually the killings were done by the Burmese army,” he said.

The AA is often accused of launching attacks by troops dressed in civilian clothes, and Myanmar’s army may be making accurate reports of some of these attacks, said Shwe Phaw Sein, chairperson of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress (REC).

“There are some people who know the truth, but they are afraid of telling the truth. There is no opportunity for them to do so,” he said.

Peace is not yet beyond reach, but efforts to make contacts between the warring armies must be handled carefully, said United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) leader Sai Nyunt Lwin, noting that reporters speaking to AA spokesmen have had legal trouble following the government’s designation in March of the AA as a terrorist organization.

“We have to be very careful, and I would like to suggest that both sides stop fighting before national elections [scheduled for later this year], because this fighting can harm the elections,” he said.

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s four-year-old government has long sought to end the country’s multiple ethnic wars with historic peace talks. But those talks have sputtered, with only 10 of the country’s 20-some ethnic armies having signed a 2015 nationwide cease-fire pact considered the foundation for the talks.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.