As fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic armed organization, the Arakan Army (AA), continues unabated in northern Rakhine State, the Myanmar military demonstrates once again that they will act with total impunity as they kill more civilians in their custody.
On 30 April, 2019, the Myanmar military rounded up 275 villagers – all men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50 – in a school in Kyauk Tan Village in Rathedaung Township for suspicions of links to the AA. In the early hours of 2 May, at least six detainees were shot dead and eight were wounded after soldiers and police opened fired on the crowd of detainees. While the Myanmar military Brigadier-General, Zaw Min Tun, from the military’s True News Information Team, claims the detainees “attacked” the security forces, leading them to respond by firing warning shots and ultimately opening fire on the detainees, there are conflicting accounts of how the incident was triggered. The injured detainees and eye witnesses have stated that the soldiers began shooting at them after a detainee began yelling and attempted to run. Villagers have stated that they are facing food shortages as Kyauk Tan Village has been sealed off since the incident.
As the Myanmar military forms its own investigative team made up of five officers to conduct an investigation into the killings, around 80 villagers remain in custody of the Myanmar military according to Human Rights Watch. The International Committee for the Red Cross has expressed concern “about increasing numbers of civilian casualties during the recent weeks,” while Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and impartial investigation into the killings “to bring to justice anyone responsible for wrongdoing.” The Arakan National Party has also condemned the shootings, accusing the Myanmar military of killing the villagers who have been detained and called on the Myanmar government, the military and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to take action and to protect the civilians. Rights monitors and journalists have been largely restricted from accessing Rakhine State and as the village has been sealed off by the Myanmar military, any independent verification of the events is extremely difficult.
The recent killings follows the deaths of three villagers in another part of Rakhine State who also died while in the custody of the Myanmar military. Three of the 27 villagers from Latka Village in Mrauk-U Township, Rakhine State, who were detained on 10 April, 2019 by the Myanmar military on suspicions of supporting the AA, had died in the custody of the Myanmar military by 22 April – military spokesperson confirmed their deaths. According to the military spokesperson, the causes of their deaths were related to heart attack, suicide by hanging, and the effects of drug addiction. Their swift cremation coupled with the fact that the families were not even notified of their deaths or the cremation – and unable to conduct the Buddhist funeral rituals – raised concerns that the detainees may have been tortured and sparked outrage among the community.
Fighting between the Myanmar military and the AA has escalated since January 2019 in the strife torn Rakhine State, which has already seen the Myanmar military and its security forces conduct campaigns of mass atrocities and genocide against the Rohingya. Since January, the Myanmar military has used heavy artillery and military fighter jets in civilian areas, as over 100 clashes have left dozens of civilians dead, damaging ancient heritage sites and leaving approximately 33,000 people in Rakhine and Chin States displaced. In April, nearly 300 civil society organizations across Rakhine State called on the Myanmar military and the AA to end the ongoing conflict and ensure freedom of movement as well as to preserve the historical structures in Rakhine State’s ancient heritage zones.
The recent interrogation and deaths of civilians came as the Myanmar military extended its unilateral ceasefire agreement for two months until June 30. The extended ceasefire covers Kachin and Shan States where the country has observed some of the fiercest fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations in decades. Fighting continued in Kachin and Shan States during the first round of the unilateral ceasefire between January and April, which did not cover Rakhine State – the extended ceasefire still continues to exclude Rakhine State. This almost certainly indicates a prolonged intensification of conflict between the Myanmar military and the AA in the coming months until the beginning of the monsoon season.
The detention of hundreds of villagers and the recent deaths of civilians in Rakhine State is yet another reminder that the Myanmar military continues to act with total impunity, particularly in ethnic nationality, conflict-affected areas. What the situation calls for is an independent and impartial international investigation, not another investigation by the Myanmar military who has an atrocious record on accountability and furthermore has proven time and again that it remains accountable only to itself. Delaying justice and accountability for those conflict-affected communities, particularly the deaths of these detainees, will only further embolden the Myanmar military to continue to act with impunity against innocent civilians who bear the brunt of the ongoing armed conflict. The international community must urgently step up and respond by pressuring the Myanmar government and the Myanmar military to end these violations and ensure that victims and survivors such as the families of those who have been killed are able to seek the truth and justice.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By 190 Civil Society Organizations
By 109 Civil Society Organizations
By European Council
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland
By PEN Myanmar
By Free Expression Myanmar
By Karen Human Rights Group
By The Border Consortium (TBC)
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”