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Myanmar: Civilians Caught in Surge of Fighting

Internet Shutdown, Aid Blockage Worsens Humanitarian Crisis in Rakhine State

Three people walk along a road close to the surge of fighting between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military in Rakhine State, January 25, 2019. © 2019 Richard Sargent/AFP via Getty Images
(New York) – A surge in fighting in Myanmar’s Rakhine State during February 2020 has killed and injured numerous civilians, adding to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the conflict-riven region, Human Rights Watch said today. The Myanmar military and the insurgent Arakan Army should safeguard civilians from the fighting, abide by the laws of war, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

On February 29, five civilians were killed and at least eight others were injured in clashes between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army near Mrauk-U town, according to media reports. An ethnic Rakhine nongovernmental organization estimated that at least 18 civilians were killed and 71 were injured during fighting in February, though the actual casualties could be higher because the government’s mobile internet blackout has slowed information-gathering.

“The Myanmar military and the Arakan Army need to take immediate steps to minimize harm to civilians during the fighting and allow aid to reach all villages and communities in need,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should immediately restore full internet access so that abuses can be reported, and aid agencies can do their jobs.”

Since January 2019, fighting between the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw, and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group, has resulted in numerous civilian casualties and destruction of civilian property. At least 21 children were injured on February 13, when artillery fire reportedly hit a school in Khamwe Chaung village, Buthidaung township.

The Rakhine State government estimates that approximately 50,000 people have been displaced since fighting escalated in 2019. However, local civil society networks told Human Rights Watch that at least 100,000 people have been displaced in Rakhine and adjoining Chin States, many of whom are taking shelter in informal camps in villages and monasteries. Many people have not been able to get needed help because of government restrictions on access to the areas, and the informality of these settlements.

More than a year of fighting has forced families to flee multiple times as villages have been repeatedly shelled. “We didn’t arrive in Sittwe [the Rakhine State capital] immediately,” Marlar, a 55-year-old teacher from Kyauktan village in Rathedaung township, told Human Rights Watch. She said that her family had initially fled to the town of Rathedaung but had not felt safe after hearing the sounds of fighting every day.

Htun Yaing Oo, 63, from Hing Kay Yaw village in Myebon township, said he had been fleeing the fighting since December, after army soldiers arrived in his village. He said the soldiers rounded up everyone in the village to identify Arakan Army fighters. “We all fled the village after that,” he said. “First, we went from Kandawzaygyi, but there was fighting near there too, so we finally came here to Sittwe.”

On February 3, the Myanmar government again suspended mobile internet services in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, and Myebon townships in Rakhine State and Paletwa township in Chin State. Added to four other Rakhine State townships – Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, and Minbya – where mobile internet service has been blocked since June 21, 2019, this leaves people in nine townships unable to get online using their cell phones. The effective information blackout affects about a million people.

Under international human rights law, Myanmar needs to ensure that any internet-based restrictions are provided for by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to peacefully assemble and express political views.

Three United Nations special rapporteurs said in a joint statement on February 18 that “[t]he blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately. The government must also lift its restrictions and grant immediate access to the media, humanitarian organisations and human rights monitors.”

Sources on the ground have alleged that both the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need. The media reported that Tatmadaw forces tried to prevent civilians wounded in the fighting from reaching urgent medical treatment. The Arakan Army stated on February 21 that it may seize food aid to Paletwa township in Chin State if the aid groups fail to obtain permission from local authorities. The insurgent group has reportedly cut off routes into Paletwa, worsening food shortages there.

Local aid groups told Human Rights Watch it had become increasingly difficult to monitor the situation on the ground. Since January 14, the Rakhine State government has imposed travel restrictions on both national and international aid agencies. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 8 out of 17 townships in the state are closed to humanitarian groups.

The fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army is governed by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which applies to both national armed forces and non-state armed groups. The laws of war obligate the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to take all feasible precautions to minimize incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects.

All warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects, as well as carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it could be expected to cause civilian loss greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack. Parties should avoid using explosive weapons with wide area effects, such as artillery and mortar shells, in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.

Under the laws of war, parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not interfere with it arbitrarily. Parties must also ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian workers, which can only be restricted temporarily for imperative military reasons.

“The harm to civilians from the fighting is made much worse by the lack of access to humanitarian aid,” Robertson said. “Both the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army need to abide by international law and ensure that life-saving aid reaches civilians at risk.”

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