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Junta arrests 600 civilians after their arrival at 2 Rakhine airports

Myanmar flag. (Unsplash)
February 22, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Junta troops arrested around 600 civilians after their flights from Yangon landed at two airports in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, according to family members and sources with knowledge of the situation, who said the military is holding them on suspicion of attempting to join the armed resistance.

The arrests come amid the enactment of a conscription law that has sent draft-eligible civilians fleeing from Myanmar’s cities, saying they would rather leave the country or join anti-junta forces in remote border areas than fight for the military, which seized power in a February 2021 coup d’etat.

On Monday, junta soldiers detained nearly 500 passengers after they arrived at the airport in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe from Yangon. They were transferred to a military camp at the Lawkananda pagoda, their relatives told RFA Burmese.

The same day, more than 60 passengers from Yangon were similarly arrested after landing at the airport in Kyaukphyu city and taken to Rammawati City Hall, family members said.

Pregnant women, children, and the elderly among the passengers were released the same day, they said, although the exact number was not immediately clear.

The family member of a detainee at the Sittwe airport told RFA that there is no way to contact those being held.

“We only knew that all the passengers from the Yangon-Sittwe flight were taken by car to Lawkanada pagoda for inspection as soon as they landed at the airport,” said the family member who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. “It was discovered that many passengers – around 500 – are being held. We don’t know what they are being inspected for.”

The military has also cut off phone and internet connections in the area, and troops stationed at the Lawkananda pagoda do not allow civilians to enter the compound, sources told RFA.

The passengers who landed at Kyaukphyu airport were arrested and “immediately taken by car to Rammawati City Hall,” where they are being held for “interrogation,” said a resident of the city.

“Some of them who have residential documents or were on household lists were released,” the resident said. “The people from other areas have not been released,” he added, noting that one resident of Ramree township “was handcuffed and taken to the military camp.”

Rakhine youth returning

Armed clashes broke out in Rakhine state after the ethnic Arakan Army, or AA, ended a ceasefire in November that had been in place since the coup. Since then, the military has controlled routes in and out of the region by land and water, forcing people to rely on air travel.

After the junta announced the enforcement of the People’s Military Service Law on Feb. 10, Rakhine youth working and studying in Yangon were barred from registering for temporary residency in the city. Fearing arrest, a growing number of them have returned home, according to sources in Yangon. 

A resident of Yangon told RFA that troops at the two airports in Rakhine arrested the passengers on suspicion of planning to join anti-junta armed groups in the state.

“The Rakhine people in Yangon were forced to return home [after they were barred from registering for residency],” he said. “They were told to go back home for military service, even though they were studying and working … Although the passengers produced their IDs, they were arrested on suspicion of planning to join the Arakan Army.”

RFA has also received reports of junta troops arresting youths on the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, Mandalay–Myitkyina Highway, and on their way to Kayin and Chin states.

Sources were unable to provide the exact number of detainees and RFA was unable to independently verify their claims.

Attempts by RFA to contact Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein, the junta’s spokesperson in the region, for comment on the arrests and investigation went unanswered Tuesday.

During three months of fighting in Rakhine, the AA has captured Pauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Myay Pon and Taung Pyo townships in the state, as well as Paletwa township in neighboring Chin state.

The conflict in Rakhine is escalating amid AA offensives on the junta-controlled townships of Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Ramree.

Maungdaw camp captured

On Monday, the AA captured a military outpost in Maungdaw’s Pe Yang Taung area after a nine-hour battle, according to a statement released by the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armies, which includes the AA.

AA fighters recovered “more than 10 bodies of junta soldiers,” as well as weapons and ammunition from the camp, the statement said. 

The Three Brotherhood Alliance said that over the course of the fighting, which took place from around 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the military launched three airstrikes from fighter jets.

The seizure of the outpost in Pe Yang Taung comes days after the AA captured two junta-affiliated Border Guard Force outposts in Bodhigone and Narula, near Maungdaw, on Feb. 16.

The military has not released any information about the fighting, and Hla Thein was unavailable for comment.