Internally displaced persons (IDPs) at school in Sami town. Photo: Salai Ebenezer / Chin World

As of today, March 28, 2020, the war between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) and the Arakan Army (AA) in Chin state’s Paletwa, one of Myanmar’s westernmost townships, has been going on for five years. This marks a very sad anniversary. 

Paletwa township has more than 400 villages with a total population of more than 110,000, of whom 85,000 are Chin and around 17,000 belong to the Rakhine ethnic nationality. According to government data, it has about 384 primary, middle and high schools of which 212 are temporarily closed because of the ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA.

The AA’s stated objective, embodied in the slogan “Arakan Dream 2020,” is to establish an autonomous state similar to that controlled by the United Wa State Army in northern Shan state. AA leader Major-General Tun Myat Naing has stated previously that the armed group will “take back Arakan.”

On March 14 and 15, because of the intensifying fighting between the AA and Tatmadaw, 21 innocent civilians were killed and another 28 injured as a result of aerial bombings by fighter jets. A total of 25 people were severely wounded and taken to hospital in Sami, a very small new town with limited facilities.

In the past five years, the fighting between the armed ethnic group AA and the Tatmadaw has claimed the lives of 37 Chin civilians. One such case involved the murder by the AA of Pu Able, the headmaster of Seehpalaung Primary School, along with two other locals from Seephalaung village in Thamantha Village Tract of Paletwa township. Many other Chin civilians died after sustaining injuries from heavy artillery or landmines or getting caught in crossfire. Of course, the dead have included innocent children, women, education department staff, and local farmers who were tilling the land for their livelihood.

As a result of the conflict, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reached an estimated 8,000. Many of these have been seeking refuge in other towns and villages in Paletwa, with friends and relatives, while some have fled to different parts of Chin state. Some 800 refugees have fled Myanmar, primarily to Malaysia.

In March 2015, fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA broke out for the first time in Pyinso village, Pyinngu Village Tract, Paletwa township. The fighting was so intense that the whole village, totaling 65 households with a population of 365, fled and became IDPs on the banks of the Kaladan River. As the fighting continued, the villagers did not return to their homes and were forced to live for more than two years in temporary campsites in Laungtin village, Kyawythaung Village Tract. Subsequently other villagers were displaced by the fighting.

To date, more than 8,000 have been forced to flee their homes, as according to the Chin state government the conflict has been estimated to have impacted about 60,000 people. Because of the current indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure by Tatmadaw air strikes, there has been a new influx of IDPs into Sami town.

As a consequence of the ongoing clashes, all the roads in the area remain completely blocked, and transportation of goods is prohibited, has resulted in the inflation of the cost of rice to 100,000 Kyat (about US$75) per sack, double the normal cost. Other products are in short supply. This is yet another example of the reality that the civilian government has no control over the military activities in ethnic areas, which will destabilize the country as a whole. 

IDPs in Sami town receive a medical check. Photo: Salai Ebenezer / Chin World

Apart from the violence, abductions have been taking place, with both the AA and the military denying responsibility and accusing each other.

As of now, travel between Chin state’s Paletwa town and Rakhine’s Kyauktaw town is completely closed, both by water, which is the main route, and by land. Land transportation to Paletwa via Matupi remains extremely difficult as there are many military checkpoints along the way. Most of the people in Paletwa town and surrounding villages have left their places and are now seeking refuge in other areas of the township or elsewhere in Chin state. 

Currently, the key leaders of Paletwa town, Soe Htet, a minister in the Chin state government, Reverend Steven, general secretary of the Paletwa Baptist Association, Isaac Khen and Kyaw Nyein, both former ministers in the state government and currently active members of the Khumi Affairs Coordination Council, are being threatened, among others. They have faced death threats via different means including anonymous telephone calls and social media. The Khumi Media Group, which works hard for the people of Paletwa, reporting the on-the-ground situation, is also being threatened by the AA.

The price of this conflict has been paid by Chin civilians, most of whom are in a fight for survival. Thousands of IDPs are in urgent need of basic necessities including shelter, food, and other basic health requirements.

It is anticipated that the fighting will continue and maybe escalate before the monsoon season, as an important earmark for the AA, part of the Arakan Dream 2020. In the process, it is vital that both parties refrain from violating the human rights of civilians. It is also important that both parties come to the table to discuss a ceasefire agreement so that the people may be able to live peacefully. 

Sang Hnin Lian

Sang Hnin Lian is a former journalist who now serves as director of the Human Rights Education and Religious Freedom Program, Chin Human Rights Organization.