By Rammar Kyaw Saw
Arakan State Hluttaw lawmaker U Aung Than Tin for Ponnagyun Township raised a question in the state legislature on November 16, asking about what the state government had arranged for people who were killed or injured during clashes between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army.
Colonel Min Than, state minister for Security and Border Affairs, responded that financial aid is provided for the families of those killed and to people injured in the conflict.
He said the Disaster Management Department under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement had provided K300,000 ($225) for a fatality and K50,000 for an injured person, and that the relevant General Administration Departments compiled the lists and submitted them to the ministry.
The financial support was provided to a total of 132 families of people killed and 328 injured people, he said.
“We make sure that the injured get to the hospital on time, whether they are wounded by the fighting or not,” he added of the government’s efforts to assist civilians, speaking at a session of the state legislature in Sittwe on November 16.
However, the situation on the ground is different from what the minister described. The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) forced to flee their homes due to clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army at one point surpassed 230,000, according to figures from the Rakhine Ethnics Congress. The IDP numbers have reportedly fallen below 200,000 in recent weeks, but the situation remains difficult for many IDPs, who have so far received little effective help from the government.
Meanwhile, the Arakanese people are facing violations of human rights. The government has accommodated the Tatmadaw by imposing an internet shutdown in some Arakan State townships and in Chin State’s Paletwa Township, where clashes were occurring. The government’s decision amounts to abetting violations of human rights. Ongoing internet restrictions limit the fundamental rights of the people and hinder important online reporting opportunities to expose sometimes remote human rights abuses to the wider world.
During two years of often intensifying conflict, fatalities in Arakan State and Paletwa Township have exceeded 300 and the number of injured people is more than 700, RFA reported. More than 600 people have been detained for interrogation. According to people collecting information about human rights violations, nearly 600 people were detained and interrogated by the Tatamadaw and more than 50 people were detained and interrogated by the Arakan Army.
Among those detainees, some were released and others have been sentenced to imprisonment. The number of people reportedly killed during interrogation by the Tatmadaw is nearly 20. Generally, the detainees have been labelled as AA members or associates. Some who have been released from detention have had to take medical treatment for injuries suffered while in military custody.
Several civilians have gone missing in connection with the conflict, including 18 people from Tinma village in Kyauktaw Township, Arakan State, who were reportedly abducted by the Tatmadaw and have not been heard from in more than nine months. Two brothers from Yaw Chaung (Ywar Tharyar) village in Myebon Township were arrested by the Tatmadaw and they have been missing for more than a year.
Hostilities between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army have eased in recent weeks, but the conflict has left behind a trail of collateral damage.
Two young Muslim men were killed during a Tatmadaw-AA clash near Pyin Shay (Muslim) village in Buthidaung Township on October 5. More than a dozen other Muslim men were detained by the Tatmadaw during the fighting.
But the majority of the collateral damage has not been inflicted in the course of active combat. Most civilian casualties involved stepping on landmines, or being on the receiving end of an artillery shell or unprovoked stray gunfire. They were not pinned down by active conflict, and were often in the midst of mundane, everyday activities when they were killed or injured.
The Tatmadaw and the government have notably failed to take responsibility in many of these cases. Just look at the disparity between the casualty figures reported by RFA and the financial aid beneficiaries according to Colonel Min Than.
And with respect to that assistance, the question becomes: Is a person’s life worth only K300,000?
When the government attempts to pay the compensation, many villagers do not accept it. Some feel they have to accept it because they are afraid of the authorities.
In July, a Tatmadaw column entered Chainkharli village in Rathedaung Township and shot dead U Maung Tun Sein, a 60-year-old vendor, according to his wife. She fled to avoid being shot herself, leaving her husband’s body behind.
People from a charity group searched for his body the following day, but they could not find it. It was found in a pit toilet more than two weeks after he was killed. He was killed lawlessly, without committing an offence. He was not shot accidentally. He was shot deliberately. And the government paid K300,000 for his death. Was his life worth just K300,000?
Civilian casualties have played out across several Arakan State townships.
The government provided K50,000 for an injured person. Was this to cover medical expenditures? Today, the pocket money given a child on a day of religious significance and festivity typically runs north of that amount. In some cases, the victims were injured by heavy weapons fire or multiple gunshot wounds. They sustained severe injuries, with some even losing limbs. Will K50,000 cover the financial burden of medical treatment, and sometimes the cost of adapting to whole new ways of life in the wake of their injuries?
Some IDPs are now returning home as there have been no clashes in their areas of origin since the November 8 general election. As they return, some IDPs are finding that they can stay in their homes without any trouble, while others face property destruction, food insecurity and other hardships during their homecomings.
Most returnees worry over the possibility of fresh clashes flaring in the future, and fear the dangers posed by remnants of war including landmines and other explosive devices left behind.
Many houses in Tinma, Pyaing Taing, Mont Than Pyin, Taung Pauk and Phaya Paung villages in Kyautaw Township, and Lekka village in Mrauk-U Township, were destroyed by fire during hostilities. There is no home to return to for those affected villagers.
The government claimed to give compensation to the villagers for their loss, but the money is not enough even to build (often using donations) the kind of bamboo hut that they’d built in the IDP camps they were displaced to.
When it comes to civilian casualties in Arakan State, the victims and their families want dignity and justice, not monetary compensation, knowing that the losses cannot properly be measured in equivalent crop or livestock prices.
If both sides continue the fight, the destruction of people’s lives and properties will be ongoing. Growing casualty calculations will continue to cheapen human life. Alternatively, both sides could and should continue to work toward resolving their problems via political dialogue, not weapons of war.