People in Myanmar’s troubled western state are battling a surge in coronavirus in the midst of escalating conflict.
One evening, as Ma Nway* and her family were having dinner, soldiers from Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, came to her house and asked for her husband. According to her account, they blindfolded him, took out their guns and beat him in front of her.
“At the time, I could only cry,” said Ma Nway, an ethnic Arakanese from Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine State, who prefers not to reveal her identity for fear of reprisals. “I feared they would shoot me, so I held my tongue … I felt like they were the most brutal people in the world.”
It was March 16 2020 and the last time she saw her husband. He is among 18 people from the neighbouring villages of Tinma Thit and Tinma Gyi in Rakhine State’s northern Kyauktaw township who were arrested in March and have not been seen since. Their families’ relentless search for information has been met with silence, rejection and threats. Ten months later, they are still looking for answers – and justice.
Three witnesses, whose testimonies align with those published by other media, told Al Jazeera that on March 13 and 16, uniformed soldiers wearing the badge of the Tatmadaw’s Light Infantry Division No. 55 went door to door arresting dozens of men it suspected of having ties to the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group seeking autonomy.
Most of those arrested were released the same day, but 18 were not. The missing include a 16 year old, three people over the age of 65 and one person who is deaf. Al Jazeera has used pseudonyms for the three witnesses to protect them from possible reprisals.
On March 18, four bodies were seen floating in the Kaladan River near the villages. One of the bodies was identified by family members as among the missing villagers. The family told local media that soldiers shot at them when they approached the body, which the US-government funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported was riddled with bullet holes. The three other bodies were never identified.
All of the missing are Arakanese, also called Rakhine, a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group thought to make up the majority in the state. Frustrated with political marginalisation and perceived domination under Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority, increasing numbers of Arakanese have in recent years joined the Arakan Army (AA). Since conflict escalated in late 2018, nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed or seriously injured in violence including indiscriminate air raids, gunfire, and landmines and more than 230,000 have fled their homes.
The arrests in Tinma Gyi and Tinma Thit occurred following two weeks of intense clashes near the villages. “Tatmadaw soldiers went house to house, calling the men,” said Tun Hla,* who was among those arrested and released. “I don’t know why we were arrested by the Tatmadaw. At the time, the soldiers didn’t give any reason … 10 people were tied and beaten with guns in front of me.”
Days later, the villagers fled.
Zaw Win, a local advocate helping the families of the missing to seek justice, told Al Jazeera that three elderly men stayed in Tinma Gyi to watch over the monastery and have also not been seen since. Shortly after the villages were deserted, the houses were razed. Villagers blame the Tatmadaw, which has denied responsibility.
Myanmar’s police forces sit under the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is under the jurisdiction of the Tatmadaw. On March 23, a group of family members of the missing, now scattered in different displacement camps, filed a case regarding the disappearances with township police. Letters were also sent to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and the offices of the commander-in-chief, president, and state counsellor, calling for an investigation.
No updates came until June, when a Tatmadaw spokesperson denied anyone had been arrested in the two villages. Five more months of silence followed. On November 27, the Tatmadaw spokesperson announced that the families could open a case at the relevant police station and that if the police reported any suspicious information, the Tatmadaw would decide whether to conduct its own investigation.
The families returned to the township police station on December 8, but Ma Nway told Al Jazeera the officers on duty warned them against opening a case. “Regarding the initial case, the police told us their paperwork disappeared,” she said. “Then, they threatened us several times that we could be detained and sent to jail.”
“They said this case doesn’t concern them, and we should go to the Tatmadaw station to inquire,” added Zaw Win, who accompanied the villagers to the police station. “When we replied that the police had a responsibility to seek justice, they said they could immediately detain and send us to jail.”
The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which has faced criticism for not intervening in other high-profile cases, has also done little to support the Tinma villagers.
Kyauktaw township legislator Tun Win, who submitted the request to investigate the case, told Al Jazeera the commission responded in November that the Tinma villagers were not detained by the Tatmadaw. Its chairperson told local media on December 30 that the pandemic prevented an on-site investigation and that the commission had closed the case after inquiring with the defence ministry, which denied the Tatmadaw’s involvement.
A police investigation finally began on December 29, when district police in the nearby town of Mrauk-U called the villagers in for questioning. Ma Nway stayed behind out of fear. “I feel like my children and I are not safe since my husband disappeared. I am really worried we could be attacked because we filed charges,” she said. According to Radio Free Asia, the police took statements from 15 people.
The next day, the Tatmadaw spokesperson stated that concerned persons could file reports and present credible evidence with the local military division office or regional military commanders.
Al Jazeera’s calls to the Tatmadaw spokesperson, township and district police stations, Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and Rakhine State government spokesperson went unanswered. Media are only allowed to report from Rakhine with permission and official escorts and the government has restricted mobile internet services across conflict-affected townships including Kyauktaw since June 2019.
Local lawyer Zaw Win told Al Jazeera he was frustrated by an apparent lack of political will to address the case. “All authorities have to take responsibility,” he said. “Those in power need to know the situation, follow human rights standards and seek justice.”
The Tatmadaw is notorious for committing rights abuses with impunity, most notably following a brutal 2017 crackdown on Rakhine State’s mostly Muslim Rohingya that sent 740,000 fleeing to Bangladesh. A UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission stated in a September 2019 report that Myanmar was failing in its obligation to prevent, investigate or enact effective legislation criminalising and punishing genocide in relation to its treatment of the Rohingya.
The Fact-Finding mission also, in an August 2018 report, identified enforced disappearances among crimes against humanity committed in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan States for which Myanmar’s top military generals must be investigated and prosecuted.
The Tinma villagers’ cases are not the only enforced disappearances to have occurred in Rakhine State since the report was released. Between January and June 2020, at least 30 civilians disappeared in the state after being arrested by the Tatmadaw, according to a tally by the Rakhine-based Development Media Group. As of October, Radio Free Asia counted 32 more who died after being taken into Tatmadaw custody from the start of 2019 to October 12.
In April 2020, UN human rights expert Yanghee Lee said accountability was critical to ending the conflict between the AA and Tatmadaw. “Having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity,” she said in a statement. “They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area …Their alleged crimes must be investigated in accordance with international standards, with perpetrators being held accountable.”
Myo Myat Hein, the chair of the Arakan Lawyers Council which is providing legal aid to the families of the missing Tinma villagers, also emphasised the importance of accountability. “It isn’t acceptable just to say the villagers are missing, because several people saw the Tatmadaw detain them,” he told Al Jazeera. “Conflict actors need to build trust beyond just talking about the national peace process.”
Since mid-November, fighting between the AA and Tatmadaw has eased and an informal ceasefire is in place.
Dialogue is now taking place for the first time since December 2019. Tun Win, the Kyauktaw township legislator, emphasises the urgency of achieving justice for the Tinma villagers and others affected by human rights abuses in the state. “I welcome peace negotiations,” he said. “But if the perpetrators have impunity, it will be difficult to achieve sustainable peace.”
For the families of the missing, the current absence of clashes offers little solace. “Although the AA and Tatmadaw have stopped fighting for two months, we haven’t heard anything about our villagers’ case,” said Bo Aung,* whose son is among the missing.
Ma Nway said she lies sleepless at night, worrying about her husband and fearing for her and her children’s safety and survival. They were unable to harvest their paddy fields this season, and are living on 15,000 kyats ($11) a month in food aid. Ma Nway wants to go home but still fears the soldiers stationed near her village. “As long as they are staying there, we won’t be safe,” she said.
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the security of witnesses.