Village Administrators in Myanmar’s Rakhine State Resign En Masse Over Detentions

A group of village administrators in western Myanmar’s violence-ridden Rakhine state said Friday that they have resigned from their posts, fearing arrest after four other village chiefs were detained by police for allegedly having ties to the rebel Arakan Army (AA) which is fighting the national military in several townships in the region.

Nearly 90 of 103 village-level General Administration Department officials in Mrauk-U township quit after authorities arrested Maung Oo Sein of Pying Cha village, Sein Hla Maung of Yan Aung Pyin village, Maung Tin Shwe of Pauk Pin Kwin village, and Aung Naing Tun of Kyaukse Pyin village, while they were holding a monthly meeting on Thursday at the township administration office, some of those who stepped down said.

The township is one of several in Rakhine state where government forces have been battling the AA, an ethnic insurgent group fighting for greater autonomy in the state. The Myanmar government instructed the military to “crush” the ethnic fighters after they carried out deadly coordinated attacks on four police outposts in early January.

The group of administrators who resigned said they sent a letter to the Mrauk-U township administrator Maung Thar Sein, saying that they feared for their safety because of the arrests of fellow officials, and that the action has threatened the entire administrative system.

The village chiefs also said that Maung Thar Sein has failed to help protect local officials.

“The township administrator hasn’t taken responsibility or accountability, so all the village and ward-level administrators submitted resignation letters and returned their office seals,” said Maung Thein Tun, administrator of Chate Chaung village.

Arrests and investigations of village administrators can be conducted only after authorities have informed the township administrator, said Khin Maung San, head of Than Shin Pyin village.

“But our fellow administrators were taken away while sitting in a meeting without the township administrator knowing anything, so that was a big shock for us,” he said.

Maung Thar Sein was unavailable for comment.

Police took the arrested officials to a local court and charged them under Section 17(1) of Myanmar’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a three-year prison sentence for those who interact with an unlawful association, such as an ethnic armed group like the AA.

Rights groups accuse Myanmar authorities of using the act to intimidate and arrest ethnic minorities, especially those in turbulent regions where government troops are engaged in hostilities with ethnic armies.

Investigation underway

The four detained administrators are being held at the Myoma Police Station, where authorities have tightened security.

RFA contacted the Mrauk-U township police chief, but he said he could not provide details about the matter.

“We can’t answer anything because the investigation is still ongoing,” he said. “We haven’t received any reports from the local police.”

Rakhine state Municipal Affairs Minister Win Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service that officials have heard about the arrests but cannot yet comment on them.

“We can only comment after we discuss the [investigative] reports,” he said.

In the meantime, the official duties of the four arrested administrators will be transferred to social organizations and local elders, said Win Naing, head of the Na Kan village tract.

The regional violence from the fighting between the Myanmar Army and AA has been punctuated by the disappearances, arrests, and murders of village heads and ordinary residents alike.

An unknown number of civilians have been killed by crossfire or unexploded ordnance from fighting between government soldiers and the AA, and roughly 7,000 in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state have been displaced by the armed conflict since late November 2018.

Two village administrators in Buthidaung township and another village chief in Rathedaung township who have been detained since January are facing charges for allegedly having links to an illegal organization.

About 30 local administrators in Rathedaung township submitted their resignations in January in protest over the arrests of some of their colleagues accused of having links to the AA, though township authorities refused to accept the letters, according to local area officials.

More than 90 local administrators in Rathedaung were scheduled to attend their regular monthly meeting on Friday, but 20 were absent due to security concerns, according to one official.

And in Kyauktaw township, some 40 village tract administrators sent a letter to township administrator Thiha Zaw, calling for an investigation into the disappearance of Tun Nu, administrator of Taung Min Kalar village, after he was abducted on Jan. 19.

Local Myanmar soldiers denied that they were involved in the abduction, according to area residents, and the AA told RFA that it had nothing to do with the incident.

AA abducts two in Chin state

Also on Friday, a village administrator and police officer from Paletwa township in Chin state said AA soldiers detained them for five days and beat one of them during an interrogation.

Char Haw, the head of Paletwa's Thandaung village, and Police Lieutenant Salai Befa, chief of the Thandaung Police Station, said the AA abducted them at their homes on Feb. 22, accusing them of informing the Myanmar Army about the location of AA troops.

“We were taken on Feb. 22,” Char Haw said. “We had to travel all day long for five days going up mountains and crossing creeks.”

Villagers alerted Chin state government about the abductions, and a search for the missing men took place in nearby forests on Feb. 23.

Char Haw said the soldiers beat him with their guns, causing injuries to his head, chest, back, and legs.

“I was beaten with rifle butts during the interrogation,” he said. “They forced us to say that we had informed the government army about the movement of AA military columns. They pointed guns at our foreheads and said they would free us if we admitted to it, but would kill us if we didn’t.”

Salai Befa, who said he was kept apart from Char Haw, said AA soldiers neither interrogated nor beat him.

“I wasn’t beaten,” he said.” They didn’t ask me any questions either. They said I didn’t do anything wrong and that they would release me when we reached a village.”

Soldiers released the two men on Feb. 27 after an order from the AA’s central headquarters, they said.

But the insurgents asked them to promise that they would not to inform the government army again about the AA’s movements in Paletwa township, they said.

Char Haw said he believed that he and Salai Befa were freed because local media extensively covered their abductions.

He also said he would leave Thandaung village because he is afraid that the AA will return to take him away again.

AA officials said they will take four or five more village administrators from 11 communities in the Thandaung village group because they also have informed government soldiers about the AA’s movements, Char Haw said.

RFA could not reach the AA for comment.

Chin state officials have stepped up security in the region since the two abductions, said Soe Htet, state spokesman and minister of municipal affairs.

“The regional government has planned to increase security by the military and by the police force in this area,” he told RFA.

Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Nandar Chann and Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.