Some displaced villagers who returned to their homes last month amid a lull in fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are moving back into temporary camps ahead of the expiration this week of an unofficial cease-fire between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army, with signs government troops are returning.
The two sides have engaged in intensified warfare for two years in northern Rakhine state over the ethnic army’s attempt to seek greater autonomy for Rakhine people in the state.
About 300 civilians have died in the hostilities and a total of roughly 230,000 others have been displaced, some thousands of which have returned to their villages as the fighting has subsided. The two armies agreed to stop the clashes temporarily so that voting could take place in townships where election authorities had cancelled early November balloting for security reasons.
The Rakhine Ethnics Congress, an NGO based in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe that tallies internally displaced persons (IDPs) estimates that at least 30,000 civilians returned to their permanent homes when the fighting stopped.
At least 8,000 of these villagers have returned to the IDP camps, fearing the resumption of combat, said REC secretary Zaw Zaw Htun.
“We don’t know about the detailed figures of the IDPs returning to the camps, but we have heard the news about them going back,” he said. “One reason is that many who returned home for the harvest have finished their work.”
Another reason is growing fear of military activities in the area, he added.
“I’ve estimated that around 30,000 people had returned home from the camps, [but] now around 7,000 to 8,000 people are going back to the camps,” Zaw Zaw Htun said.
RFA could not reach the Myanmar military or the AA for comment on the development.
‘We are afraid’
A resident of Mrauk-U township, who declined to give his name out of fear for his safety, said local residents are afraid of arbitrary arrests if the conflict resumes and those worries have increased as Myanmar soldiers have been mobilizing in the area for the past three days.
“They are moving by both vehicle and on foot, [so] we think that fighting will resume after Dec. 31,” he said. “Then, we might be arrested or have to flee our homes, so we are afraid. Many people from other villages close to Asia Road are also returning to IDP camps.”
Khin Than Win, a woman from Pyaing Taw village in Rathedaung township, and 20 other residents returned on Monday to the camp where they had sought shelter from the fighting, out of fear that the war will resume in early 2021.
“We are moving as a precaution,” she said. “People are saying that the fighting will resume, so we fled our homes along with other villagers. I have children. I don’t know for sure, but it is best to keep ourselves safe here.”
Following the Nov. 8 elections, the AA appealed to the ruling government to conduct voting before the end of the year in townships where balloting had been canceled. The Myanmar military welcomed the AA’s appeal, and the two sides temporarily laid down their arms in anticipation of the elections, which have yet to be held in the war-torn state.
Aung Mya Thein, who is in charge of an IDP camp in the township’s Tin Htein Kan village, said that at least 183 people from 36 families have returned to his camp since Dec. 21.
“They lived in the camp before, [but] returned home for paddy harvest,” he said. “Now, they are returning to the camp for fear of insecurity in the region.”
While the fighting was in progress, more than 1,000 people from about 280 families from Bu Ywet Ma Nyo Latka, Pauk Taw Pyin, Out Thakan, and Wai Thar Li villages in Mrauk-U township fled to IDP camps, including villagers who returned home but later went back to their temporary shelters.
Rakhine state municipal minister Win Myint said that the government will provide food supplies to the IDPs who cannot permanently return home.
“This depends on what they reported to the IDP camps when they left for home,” he said. “If they decided to return to their homes permanently, then the food supplies provided will be reduced. But if they reported that they were going home temporarily, then the supplies will not be reduced.”
“If they had returned home for good, but then returned to the camps, we will need to update the figures so we can provide enough assistance,” he said.
Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told RFA on Dec. 18 that the military would take necessary measures to avoid armed combat during the unofficial cease-fire when the chances for long-term peace were optimal. He also said that the military would keep the discussion going to try to reach an official cease-fire and a long-term peace agreement.
There were more than 190,000 IDPs in temporary camps in Rakhine state as of Dec. 3, according to the REC, although the state government put the figure at nearly 87,500 in 11 townships as of Nov. 11.
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.