21 November 2023

Myanmar junta attacks by air, river during Arakan Army clash

Clashes this week in western Myanmar between the Arakan Army and junta troops have driven more than 26,000 people from their homes, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said on Friday.

After the ethnic armed forces seized a police station in Rakhine state Thursday morning, junta forces retaliated with airstrikes.

The military regime also brought in navy ships, one Pauktaw township resident told Radio Free Asia. Gunfire continued until Thursday afternoon, when locals began to leave en masse.

“I am not sure whether all the residents could get out of the city,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “I think parts of the city are blocked as [junta troops] are shooting from both air and sea.”

The escalated hostilities in Rakhine and neighboring southern Chin state have restricted key transport routes and waterways between Rakhine’s state capital of Sittwe and Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, according to Friday’s update from OCHA.

Fighting has been especially intense in Rakhine’s Pauktaw and Maungdaw townships and in Chin’s Paletwa township, according to OCHA.

Since Monday, 11 deaths and more than 30 injuries have been reported, and more than 100 people have reportedly been detained by junta forces, OCHA said.

Humanitarian aid suspended

The attack on the police station ended a ceasefire brokered in 2022 after fighting led to shortages in food, medicine and access to health care for more than 2 million residents.

In May, Cyclone Mocha devastated much of Rakhine. Hungry and shelterless residents have complained for months of slow or nonexistent aid delivery in the aftermath of the storm.

OCHA said Friday that most humanitarian activities have been suspended “due to the resurgence of conflict, increased security scrutiny, road and waterway blockades, and movement restrictions between urban and rural areas.”

Tensions between the junta and the Arakan Army had resurfaced in recent months, according to Richard Horsey, the International Crisis Group’s senior Myanmar adviser.

“Both sides knew that fighting could resume at any time,” he said on Friday. “The regime kept sizable forces deployed in the state for that eventuality.”

On Thursday, two junta warships traveling along the Kaladan River fired more than 10 shots with heavy weapons.

The ships continued to Pauktaw along the Kwe Ku River as a helicopter from Sittwe continued firing.

“Two of three navy ships docked and one remained on the river. Now the helicopter is hovering and shooting,” the Pauktaw resident said. “Residents from the city are fleeing to nearby places.”

A new hotspot

The Pauktaw police station, previously under junta control, was seized by the Arakan Army, said another Pauktaw resident, but the city continued to be attacked by the junta airforce and navy.

“The residents from the city are fleeing and [junta soldiers] are shooting. I know there is damage and that there have been casualties, but we are still hiding,” he told RFA, asking to remain anonymous.

Pauktaw’s residents escaped on foot, by cars and on motorcycles, according to a video uploaded to Facebook on Thursday afternoon.

The Arakan Army “has seized the moment to press its advantage” following the Operation 1027 offensive that began three weeks ago, Horsey said.

The Arakan Army is part of the “Three Brotherhood” Alliance of rebels that has seen notable gains against the military in several key cities in Shan state in the country’s northeast.

This week’s attacks by the Arakan Army in western Myanmar have created a new hotspot that “the regime can ill afford to get bogged down in,” according to Horsey.

“It also will not welcome the idea of renewed conflict with the AA, which it has struggled to overcome even when other parts of Myanmar were quiet, back in 2019-2020,” he said.

The junta has yet to release any information on the incidents in Pauktaw. RFA called Rakhine state’s junta spokesperson Hla Thein, but he did not answer the phone.

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