Police and local authorities in Rakhine state’s Kyauktaw township on Monday took statements from family members of villagers believed to have been abducted last year by Myanmar military forces, with a military spokesman promising explanations if the army is shown to have been involved, Myanmar sources said.
The 18 men were taken away in two batches in mid-March, 2020 when soldiers from a Myanmar military infantry unit entered their community in Kyauktaw township amid fighting with the rebel Arakan Army (AA), later burning down dozens of homes in the 500-home ethnic Rakhine village tract.
Eight of the 18 Kyauktaw villagers were taken from Tin Ma Thit village on March 13, while the other 10 from Tin May Gyi village were arrested by troops on March 16, all on suspicion of having ties to the AA. The body of one of them was discovered a day later in a river, riddled with bullet holes.
The incident was one of numerous disappearances in the now two-year-old war in Rakhine that has killed at least 300 civilians and displaced roughly 230,000 others. The AA is battling for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhines, descendants of an ancient kingdom along the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Maung Kyaw Win, the father of disappeared 28-year-old villager Nay Lin Oo, told RFA on Monday that he and other villagers summoned by investigators have now been questioned twice, with a first interrogation taking place on Dec. 29 at the Mrauk-U District Police commander’s office.
“They compared our testimonies today with the ones we gave in Mrauk-U,” he said.
“I appealed to them to have the detained villagers released if they are still alive,” he said, adding, “And if they are not, they should confirm this frankly.”
Military patches seen
Ma Aye Hla, the wife of 34-year-old missing villager Maun Than Soe, said that investigators asked her if she could identify the military unit that she said had abducted her husband.
“I told them I didn’t know the unit’s exact designation, but that I had seen the number 55 written on the soldiers’ insignia,” she said.
Family members of the missing men said they had sent letters on Dec. 1 to Myanmar’s president, state counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Myanmar’s Ministry of Defense, asking them to urgently investigate the now almost-year-old case.
Community leader and investigation team member Tun Thein said that all testimony collected in the case will be forwarded on to relevant government and military authorities.
“We will send the testimony to the president’s office and the state counselor’s office, and also to the Defense Ministry and to [Myanmar’s] Human Rights Commission,” he said, adding that team members must first meet, however, to decide when to send the documents on.
“I don’t know when we will have that meeting, though,” he said.
Myanmar’s military has consistently denied any role in the villagers’ disappearance, but military spokesman Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun said on Monday that the army will provide explanations for any evidence they were involved.
“There was armed combat near Tin Ma village at the time [the men disappeared], and some of the villagers may have been fleeing from their homes,” he said. “Other information may emerge when the township investigators question the villagers,” he added.
“And if anything comes up related to the military, we will explain that,” he said.
At least 22 missing persons are believed to have been abducted last year by Myanmar military units in Kyauktaw township, according to local lawmakers.
Myanmar’s military, which controls the country’s police force, has a fearsome reputation among the multiethnic country’s ethnic minorities.
An August 2018 report by the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar mentions enforced disappearances among the many “gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states.”
The report said that crimes against humanity in those conflict zones “include murder; imprisonment; enforced disappearance; torture; rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence; persecution and enslavement.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.