Ethnic Chin people hold placards during a protest in Yangon demanding an end to conflict in Chin and Rakhine states, on July 13, 2019. Photo: Sai Aung Main / AFP

The war between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army in Paletwa, one of Myanmar’s westernmost townships, has been raging for five years. Enforced disappearances and abductions have been practiced by both of these adversaries.

On March 28, 2015, the first fighting broke out between the AA, a non-ceasefire ethnic armed group, and the military, known as the Tatmadaw, in Pyin So village, near the border with Bangladesh in Paletwa township, Chin state, destroying homes and forcing all the villagers to flee. A 30-year-old man went missing that day, leaving his wife and two daughters, and disappeared for more than six months. 

Within the wider context of armed conflict in Myanmar’s ethnic states, Paletwa remains a war zone, where both the Tatmadaw and the AA continue to involve civilians in their conflict, ignoring obligations under customary international humanitarian law. 

The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) has documented cases of killings, forced labor, indiscriminate laying of landmines, enforced disappearances, and abductions in connection with the conflict.  

In 2019, the AA began a systematic campaign of abductions and enforced disappearance, leaving whole communities in fear. At present, 20 people remain missing as a result of the conflict.

The whereabouts of three civilians who were caught in the crossfire close to Yat Chaung village in Paletwa remains unknown. Four quarry workers from Baung Wa Kyaw village in Paletwa township disappeared on July 16, 2019. Before that, another man from the same village went missing after being detained by the AA on June 14.

A further three individuals from Wun Chaung Wa village disappeared on September 14 on their way back from buying rice and cooking oils in Rakhine. 

The vicinity in which their disappearances took place has been a hotbed of military activities by both the AA and Tatmadaw. Both armed groups have denied responsibility for these disappearances. 

On October 27, a school worker who also ran a restaurant at Pui Vum Village, Paletwa township, was abducted by AA soldiers from his own house.

All three households, numbering 15 people, subsequently fled to Paletwa town for their safety. 

Abduction of one whole village 

Between February and July 2019, 54 Chin civilians making up the population of an entire village were abducted by the AA. On February 2, 2019, AA soldiers entered the village of Kin Ta Lin, Paletwa township, and demanded that everyone to follow them, informing community members that Tatmadaw forces in the area were planning to bomb the village. 

According to witnesses, troops began beating a 10-household administrator when the villagers collectively refused to go. Six months later, 52 villagers including women and children remained at an AA camp on the Bangladeshi border. While there, the hostages were made to help with camp maintenance, receiving inadequate meals, and a 60-year-old woman died. The villagers were finally released on July 31, 2019.

The villagers subsequently went to Miza, a village in Paletwa that is currently sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs). An Evangelical Methodist Church minister who was one of the 39 Kin Ta Lin villagers who arrived in Miza stated that the villagers did not go “voluntarily” with the AA.

As fighting has intensified both the conflict parties continue to bring civilians into their activities and regularly commit a host of gross violations of international law. 

I write this article in remembrance of the victims and those who are working for them, as this Sunday, August 30, marks the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Parties involved in disputes with one another need to remember that every individual involved in an armed conflict must comply with humanitarian law and rules, whether they are fighting on behalf of a state or a non-state actor and whether or not they have consented to be bound by these rules.

Therefore, if the Arakan Army wishes to be avoid being labeled as terrorists or oppressors, stopping the practice of enforced disappearances and abductions is a good beginning.

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.