Survivors of Military Attack on Red Cross-Hired Boat in Myanmar Deny Arakan Army Connection

Survivors of a deadly Myanmar Navy artillery attack on a boat delivering Red Cross supplies to war refugees in Rakhine state rejected on Thursday military claims that they were armed members of the rebel Arakan Army, saying they were fired on as they displayed documents for inspection.

One man was killed and two others were injured Wednesday when their boat was shelled with heavy artillery and set ablaze as it traveled on the Mayu River ferrying food supplies for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to refugee camps in Rakhine townships where Myanmar forces have been fighting the AA.

Shortly after the incident, Myanmar’s military said Wednesday that the navy had fired in response to an attack by AA troops from the boat, which later burned and sank into the river, the military statement said.

The military account contradicted that of boat operator, Kan Aye Chan, who told RFA’s Myanmar Service Wednesday that a navy vessel fired first, shooting at the four-man crew with small arms fire as they waived documents and that boat was joined by a second navy one that shelled the aid boat with heavy arms.

“When I asked them to come to us, they started shooting at us with small weapons," he said.

"We carefully slowed down the boat as they were approaching. We were waiting for them with ICRC documents in hand to show them," he said, referring to letters from the ICRC and the Rakhine state government.

"At the time, another [reinforcement] vessel arrived and they started firing with heavy weapons, without notice, which hit our fuel containers and exploded with fire. They fired maybe more than 100 rounds at us," he said Wednesday.

In a follow-up interview with RFA Thursday, Kan Aye Chan, who was unhurt, said there were only four unarmed crewmen on board the vessel and none had any connection to the AA, an 11-year-old force with some 7,000 fighters that seeks autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in Myanmar’s westernmost state.

One of the injured men, Maung Than Wai, told RFA Thursday that the boat was attacked when the crew was trying to show the ICRC documents to the patrolling naval vessel.

“They were coming downstream, and we were going upstream. They slowed down their vessel and we did the same. We held our official documents in our hands in case they wanted to inspect,” he said.

“It was then that they entered Pyain Taw creek, then came back out toward us. We tried to approach their vessel because we assumed they would ask us to come to them, but then they wouldn’t let us move closer and started shooting at us,” he said Wednesday.

'We were terrified'

Kan Aye Chan said the four ducked under the hull when bullets started flying.

“The first shots didn’t hit the boat, so I was able to immediately run into the hull. As I was in hiding, they started firing artillery,” he said.

“We were terrified. They fired guns and artillery nonstop. As they were firing, their vessel pushed our boat toward the riverbank,” said Kan Aye Chan.

“While they were pushing, some soldiers got onto our boat, so we didn’t get a chance to flee. They took off the tarp that covered the supplies to check, and they must have learned we were with the ICRC,” he said.

According to Maung Than Wai, after the soldiers left, the three survivors jumped into the water to escape. Kan Aye Chan was unscathed while Hla Win Maung and Maung Than Wai suffered burn injuries, and 20-year-old Maung Chey was burned to death. None of the four were shot, he said.

The ICRC late Wednesday released a statement saying it deeply regretted the attack on the commercial vessel that was transporting ICRC supplies. It also said  no ICRC employees were on the boat.

RFA attempted to contact Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, chairman of the military information committee, to discuss the discrepancies between the military’s account and that of the survivors, but he did not respond as of Thursday evening.

AA Spokesperson Khine Thukha told RFA that the AA was not involved in any combat in the vicinity of Wednesday’s boat attack.

Khin Maung Latt, Rathedaung township’s representative in parliament, told RFA there should be proper protocol for river transport security in Rakhine, a coastal region on the Bay of Bengal crossed with alluvial rivers.

“If they want to tighten security on the river, they should have security checkpoints at the openings of sections of the river. They can conduct inspections on official documents, permissions, and perform inquiries at these checkpoints,” he said.

The AA has been battling Myanmar forces since late 2018 in a war that has killed nearly 300 civilians and injured more than 640 while displacing more than 220,000 civilians, according to a relief NGO.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.