At least two villages were set on fire and two civilians shot dead allegedly by a Myanmar military column in war-ridden Rakhine state, witnesses said Friday, as the government dismissed a cease-fire offer by the rebel Arakan Army and its allies.
At least 170 houses were torched Thursday in Phayar Paung and Taung Pauk villages, located along the Yangon-Sittwe roadway, while the bodies of two Phayar Paung residents were found with gunshot wounds, villagers who visited the communities to see the destruction told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The two dead men — Han Maung Thein, 35, and Maung Nyunt Win, 25 — were ordinary civilians with no ties to the Arakan Army (AA), villagers said.
The AA has been fighting Myanmar forces since later 2018 in a quest for greater autonomy for ethnic Rakhines in the state.
A Myanmar military spokesman denied that troops had burned down villages and said that a military vehicle carrying police was attacked by AA landmine blasts.
Some local villagers also said that the troops came to attack and destroy the villages after AA soldiers had attacked their vehicles with roadside bombs.
The latest destructive attack in the 21-month-old Rakhine conflict came after Myanmar government spokesman Zay Htay dismissed a recent offer from the AA and two allied ethnic armies to extend a temporary unilateral cease-fire until early November to allow for voting in general elections.
The cease-fire, which does not extend to cases where Myanmar forces launch offensives, was “propaganda,” he said.
“The AA speaks about cease-fires, but on the contrary, they are planting and detonating bombs. They are hypocritical,” Zaw Htay said during a news conference in Naypyidaw.
“If they want peace, then they should work on this process,” he said, urging the AA — declared a terrorist organization by the Myanmar government in March — to join political talks to show it is serious.
Thursday’s military attack on civilians and torching of the villages in Kyauktaw township came after a provocation by AA fighters along the Sittwe-Yangon roadway, the area’s main thoroughfare, local residents said.
“Around 5 p.m., they entered the village by vehicles,” said Phayar Paung resident Than Hla Htun.
“They started firing their guns as soon as they got out of the vehicles,” he said. “They fired both large and small guns for 20 minutes in the direction of the village. They looked for the villagers as they fired.”
‘Burned down by arson’
As terrified residents ran in all directions, soldiers began to burn the houses at 6 p.m., said Than Hla Htun, who witnessed the torching.
“Before they burned a house, they fired their guns indiscriminately into it,” he said,
Another Phayar Paung villager, who declined to be identified for safety reasons, told RFA that about 200 soldiers entered the village, fired their guns at random, and torched homes.
Before burning the homes, soldiers asked residents to come out of their houses and sit in two rows, one for men and the other for women, alongside the nearby highway for an hour prior to releasing them, he said.
“They asked if there were any AA members among us, if there were people who would attack them,” he told RFA. “We said we knew nothing about them, that we were just ordinary civilians. They then started beating us.”
The soldiers told the villagers that they must know about the AA since they were ethnic Rakhines, the resident said.
“They then went around the village and fired their guns indiscriminately,” he added. “When we looked back at the village, the houses were burning.”
Aye Saw, who lives in Kyauktaw town, confirmed the village burnings and the killings of the two civilians, and said the torched communities now are deserted.
“The houses were burned down by arson,” he said. “The houses in the villages are not close to one another. They were built in large compound, so there is no way the fire accidentally spread from house to house. They were burned down on purpose.”
A local man said the villagers who were burned out were staying and receiving meals at Buddhist monasteries across the river from Kyauktaw.
At a news conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw on Friday, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun denied that government forces burned down the communities.
At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, a military vehicle carrying police forces from the Apauk Wa police station was attacked by AA landmine blasts, after which troops found the bodies of two enemy soldiers and a gun, he said.
‘Making up battles’
AA spokesperson Khine Thukha said the rebel force did not conduct landmine attacks in Kyauktaw township on Thursday evening.
“The military made up the attack as an excuse to burn down the villages,” he said. “The killing of the villagers and the arson in the villages are crimes committed by the military troops.”
The two bodies the Myanmar military said were AA soldiers, were in fact those of civilians who had no connections to the AA, he added.
“The military has been attacking innocent civilians by making up battles,” Khine Thukha said, adding that the violence was meant as a pretext to cancel the holding of November’s general elections in Rakhine state.
The Myanmar military has been implicated in other village shootings and burnings in conflict zones in Rakhine state.
Myanmar troops were accused of torching hundreds of homes Kyauktaw township’s Tin Ma village in March, though military officials later denied the allegation and claimed that there was no fire in the community.
However, on April 22, the government provided 90 million kyats (U.S. $66,000) to rebuild the 500 homes.
Nearly 300 civilians have died and more than 600 have been injured in the armed conflict since December 2018, according to an RFA tally. Roughly 200,000 others have fled their homes amid the fighting and now live in official or makeshift displacement camps.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay urged the AA to join the national peace process that the Rakhine group and its allies have rejected in recent years.
“If they really want peace, if they genuinely want the rights of ethnic states, if they truly want rights as ethnic group, they should come join to peace talk table,” he said, adding that government representatives would meet with AA commanders.
AA spokesman Khine Thukha rejected Zaw Htay’s hypocrisy accusations.
“The truth is they are the ones being hypocritical,” he said, pointing to the military’s unilateral cease-fires that have excluded Rakhine state.
“They then use excessive force combining the army, navy, and air force to launch offensives,” he added.” Do they really think their actions are sincere? It is just insane.”